Running true to form, Neil LaBute comes up with a bold dramatic concept -- here, it's the challenging notion of sketching what leads to a raw act of juvenile violence -- but fails to get under the skin of the problem. Failure of the heart confounds the director and drops the actors into sterile limbo.

Running true to form, Neil LaBute (“The Mercy Seat”) comes up with a bold dramatic concept — here, it’s the challenging notion of sketching what leads to a raw act of juvenile violence — but fails to get under the skin of the problem. Although his trailer trash characters are keenly observed through the fug of cigarette smoke and beer fumes that envelops their native habitat, they don’t have his sympathy. This failure of the heart confounds the director and drops the actors into sterile limbo, where they are given ample visual cues and raunchy dialogue to define their characters as crude and creepy but few clues on how to understand them.

LaBute may flinch at getting really up close and personal with people who both repel and fascinate him, but he has a terrific ear for the way they talk. Best friends Darrell (Mark Webber) and Tim (Logan Marshall-Green) are juniors in high school who spend most of their time cutting classes and hanging out at the zoo, talking trash.

Tim, who may have a learning disability but can still read the writing on the wall, already has a dead-end job at a fast-food joint. Beaten down before his life has even begun, he expresses himself with an effort and mainly in defensive monosyllables, which gives Marshall-Green license to fill in the blanks with fidgeting limbs and panicking eyes. (The baggy clothes and over-the-eyes caps are costumer Angela Wendt’s contribution to his shrunken ego.)

Darrell, whose own mother calls him a “moody little fucker,” has enough smarts to know life has screwed him but insufficient intelligence to trace the roots of his anger or figure out a plan of escape. He uses words — occasionally multisyllabic, important-sounding words like “punitive” and “resilient” — like weapons. And when words fail him, as they always do, he uses his fists. Webber speaks Darrell’s language but, like Tim, Darrell is an unfinished character, incapable of applying thought and language to control his actions.

The plot, which should ring bells with theatergoers familiar with Edward Bond’s “Saved,” follows the arc of Darrell’s rage, which is stoked by his mother’s indifference (“Truthfully, I don’t recall that much about you,” she admits, in a moment that really resonates in Melissa Leo’s perf) and fueled by his insane jealousy of his girlfriend Jenn. Street-smart and tough, but with a core of decency in Alison Pill’s well-tempered perf, Jenn is the one who gives focus to Darrell’s mindless anger.

While other people in Darrell’s life — including a cocky stepfather (Josh Charles) and slatternly half-sister (Anna Paquin) — contribute to his horrifying final act of violence, there’s nothing for actors to play beyond their repugnant surface behavior.

Even Darrell and Tim, who are far better developed, lose dimension when posed in front of the primate cage at the zoo, whooping and scratching themselves like hairless apes.

Few characters (or thesps) can hold their own against such superficial symbolism. But since surfaces are what seem to interest LaBute most, it’s hard to fault actors or director for neglecting the reality beneath.

The Distance From Here

Duke; 199 seats; $50

Production

A presentation by MCC Theater of a play in one act by Neil LaBute. Directed by Michael Greif.

Creative

Sets, Louisa Thompson; costumes, Angela Wendt; lighting, James Vermeulen; sound, Robert Kaplowitz; fight director, Rick Sordelet; production stage manager, Joel Rosen. MCC artistic directors, Robert LuPone, Bernard Telsey. Opened May 6, 2004. Reviewed April 30. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

Darrell - Mark Webber Tim - Logan Marshall-Green Cammie - Melissa Leo Shari - Anna Paquin Rich - Josh Charles Jenn - Alison Pill Girl - Amelia Alvarez Boy, Employee - Ian Brennan

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