“The Distance From Here” begins at a zoo, complete with warnings not to feed the animals, but it doesn’t take long before Neil LaBute’s new play is focusing attention on humankind as the fiercest beast in our midst. Was it ever otherwise in LaBute’s singularly bleak landscape, which has found a London home for the third season running at the Almeida, following the local bow of “Bash” and last year’s world preem of “The Shape of Things”? And yet, those were child’s play compared to this latest effort, in which LaBute doesn’t so much report from the slacker/white-trash front as revel in a degree of anomie that seems as contrived as its sentimental opposite. Feel-bad junkies — not to mention Britons wanting their latent prejudices about America confirmed — will have a ball.
Others may feel patience dwindling as the borrowings mount from previous and better plays, many of them British. In LaBute’s affectless blue-collar milieu — this play makes the comparable output of, say, Rebecca Gilman seem positively cheery — characters act less on impulse or instinct than in predictable accordance with a scabrous dramatic canon. No sooner is a mewling baby introduced offstage before we can guess its grim onstage fate to come, as prescribed by a writer steeped in Edward Bond’s “Saved” who no doubt sees us all as damned.
The child’s calamitous end arrives courtesy of Darrell (Mark Webber, the boyish American actor previously seen in London in “American Buffalo” at the Donmar), a sociopathic high schooler inhabiting a household that revels in equal measure in the carnal and the combative. If violence can flare up on and off the sofa, so can lust: While Darrell and girlfriend Jenn (Liesel Matthews) part company, we’re told, “every three days” (an extant video of her engaged in a sexual act with someone else doesn’t exactly help matters), that doesn’t prevent the teenager’s young mother, Cammie (Amy Ryan), from snatching the odd kiss from her son — when, that is, Darrell’s stepsister Shari (Ana Reeder) isn’t doing her bit to chat him up.
Mom’s new boyfriend, meanwhile, is Rich (Enrico Colantoni), a physically imposing Gulf War vet with his own amorous designs on Shari — and a Concorde, or so he reports, taking off inside his fevered, war-damaged skull. Is it any wonder, then, that the bawling of Shari’s infant son prompts talk of hurling the child “into the next county”? This is a community, if that word can be used for so dissociative an assemblage, clearly ready to snap, as is clear well before Darrell gives voice to his descent into “weird shit.”
For a writer who long ago made plain a penchant for shock, the real surprise of “The Distance From Here” is how programmatic much of it feels. While the writing veers between the deliberately blank (“whatever” is the characters’ lingua franca) and the questionably hallucinatory (Darrell’s friend Tim speaks of having visions of forests and palaces: Perhaps he should head into the woods), a back-story is awkwardly inserted as if to explain behavior that in any case lies beyond ready-made analysis. And so we have Cammie reporting on her son’s childhood as one she can barely remember. The implication: Neglect breeds ennui that in turn invites actions of an all too memorable kind, especially if you’ve got one of the defining English plays of the 1960s as a template.
There’s a touch of Pinter, American-style, to LaBute’s creation of a lowlife canvas nonetheless populated by characters who casually toss words like “punitive” into the conversation. (Given the two writers’ affinities, how ironic is it that Pinter made headlines during LaBute’s last play for storming out before “The Shape of Things” even began in response to its assaultive Smashing Pumpkins soundscape?) LaBute is lucky, then, to have as his director an Englishman, David Leveaux, whose Almeida resume includes Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” as well as the best “Betrayal” in my experience.
However preconceived the play itself, the staging remains both physically and emotionally fresh, the bleak chic of Giles Cadle’s Edward Hopper-esque set always animated by a restless shifting between flirtatiousness and fear. Having made his name early on with heightened reclamations of O’Neill featuring name performers, Leveaux here displays an equally dab hand with a relatively unseasoned cast among whom New York theater veteran Amy Ryan (“Uncle Vanya”) joins Webber as the most recognizable of a fresh-faced bunch.
It’s been a long time, actually, since so little-known a (mostly) American company made such a strong London impression, with the cast never once commenting in performance terms on a narrative from which LaBute seems oddly remote. (Ritter is particularly winning, playing a 17-year-old whose allowance has been cut off for defacing the family room.) Otherwise, you get the sense that the author is taking his title awfully literally, keeping his — and our — distance from a mounting sense of life’s horrors that “The Distance From Here” has the perverse effect of recounting almost by rote.