Ben Chaplin’s eyes look as if they can’t believe what’s coming out of his mouth for much of “This Is How It Goes.” But that’s not the only reason the second Neil LaBute play to reach London in a week is such a surprise. The best of the four major LaBute productions of the past six months (the Off Broadway preem of this play included), Moises Kaufman’s scalding take on an elusive, often exasperating text marks the perfect synthesis of a visiting American director and a largely British cast, two of whom are on such form singly and together that you don’t know which way to look.
Of course, both Chaplin and his astonishing co-star Idris Elba have lived in the U.S. for longish stretches of time, the first during the run of last season’s “The Retreat From Moscow” and Elba as the East London-born star of HBO’s “The Wire.” Perhaps ironically, they eclipse the production’s lone actual American, Gwyneth Paltrow sound-alike Megan Dodds. But this pertains less to the distaff lead’s sweet if comparatively pallid presence than to the interplay that develops between the men, which over time becomes a bare-knuckled fight for one-upmanship in a racial arena where all the players lose.
In New York, the same play couldn’t quite shake off the celebrity sheen of Ben Stiller as the predictably unnamed LaBute archetype, Man. Casting a lesser-known actor in the part insures full attention is paid to the overly tricksy narrative, no matter how many times Man coyly breaks the fourth wall to announce his essential unreliability.
By making every reversal and rewrite of his own story count, Chaplin lends unexpectedly poignant weight to the tale of an ex-lawyer and wannabe scribe whose geniality is forever giving way to some grimly unfunny, even fearsome jests. And when the character cracks at the eleventh hour to pour forth the sort of tirade that by now is a LaBute norm, Chaplin cunningly hints that a play about the slipperiness of truth is at its most honest when most savage. The rest is just show.
And what a show! The exceedingly smart set by Tim Hatley (“Monty Python’s Spamalot”) consists of illustrated script against the Donmar’s defining back wall, which gets lit up in different combinations of words to set the scene.
Paul Pyant’s lighting darkens in accordance with the primal rumblings just beneath Man’s ready affability and ease. Anyone who doubts the interpretive ability of a designer should consider the ending, which in its lighting scheme alone suggests the solitary souls that are our three points of an increasingly fractious interracial triangle, no matter what the reconfiguration.
The play’s scene-setting is fairly tiresome, and some of the jokes (the Freudian slip of “black guy” instead of “black eye”) betray a glibness belonging more to the dramatist than to his creations. But you’re never in any doubt as to what’s at stake in this account — however overembellished or amended — of an apparent charmer who moves back to his hometown all smiles, only to eventually chill the blood.
The power has in part to do with the pathos lying dormant in Chaplin’s signature doe-eyed glance, which in turn makes his convulsions from Jekyll to Hyde and back again doubly hard to take. But this staging owes even more to a galvanic starring London debut from local homeboy Elba, who has both the physique for the “Greek God” Cody as well as a distinctly threatening gift for curling a single toe.
“I don’t do anything for fun,” Cody says early on, eyes alive to a resentment he clearly isn’t feeling for the first time. But even as Chaplin gives bruising voice to the sound of PC white society going snap, Elba’s entire frame speaks to generations of black men whose success can be shot down with a single word. That, LaBute reminds us, is how it goes.