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This Is How It Goes

In what has become a remarkably fertile season for the least self-censoring of contemporary American playwrights, Neil LaBute continues to push the buttons of his audiences, confronting them again with the darker behavioral shadings of the outwardly normal human animal in "This Is How It Goes."

Cast:
Man - Ben Stiller Belinda - Amanda Peet Cody - Jeffrey Wright

In what has become a remarkably fertile season for the least self-censoring of contemporary American playwrights, Neil LaBute continues to push the buttons of his audiences, confronting them again with the darker behavioral shadings of the outwardly normal human animal in “This Is How It Goes.” Representing a trenchant one-two punch after “Fat Pig” — which could become a triple blow if the London premiere of LaBute’s “Some Girls” in May maintains the standard — this three-character one-act play maliciously tweaks perspectives of truth and interpretation to broach spiky questions of race and love.

A sharply honed work that insidiously inches under the skin with its unforgiving insights and typically LaBute-ian nasty tricks, the play is tersely directed by departing Public Theater producer George C. Wolfe on Riccardo Hernandez’s fittingly triangular stage. Backed by a wooden plank fence that opens to disgorge elements of a coffee shop, a living room, a garden barbecue area or a lawyer’s office — enhanced by stylized, slightly whimsical projections overhead and by David Weiner’s descriptive lighting — the smart, spartan economy of the design provides an apt visual echo of LaBute’s pithy writing.

And as the principal mouthpiece for that writing, LaBute has lassoed a commanding force in Ben Stiller (the two previously worked together on the playwright’s film “Your Friends and Neighbors”). Shrugging off the comedic overexposure of his film roles, Stiller takes the gamble of returning to the New York stage after an 18-year absence to play a morally abrasive, unapologetic racist.

Stiller’s character is an unnamed man who conducts much of the action in direct address, like a standup comic giving his twisted account of an interracial romantic triangle. His opening line is the play’s title (lifted from an Aimee Mann song), which instantly sets him up as “an unreliable narrator,” liable to put his own skewed spin on events. It’s an astute piece of casting and a testament to Stiller’s skill that — even without erasing his nervy, self-deprecating screen persona — his celebrity never gets in the way of a character emerging.

An ex-lawyer, ex-husband, ex-military (“I’m great at used to be”) returning after 12 years to his small unspecified hometown to pursue writing, the guy bumps into the high school classmate he worshipped, Belinda (Amanda Peet), outside Sears. While their one date is etched on his memory like it was yesterday, she struggles to recall it, her memory jogged only by the reminder that he was the funny, former fat kid: “Yep, that’s me. Mr. Comedy.”

Stiller’s character is surprised to learn that Belinda married another classmate, Cody (Jeffrey Wright), an arrogant, over-achieving athlete and “the only black kid around for, like, a hundred miles.” The three meet for coffee to discuss renting the apartment above Belinda and Cody’s garage to the returned local.

LaBute seeds the threat of ugly developments from that first encounter. Belinda’s comments have indicated unhappiness with her uncommunicative husband; Cody is prickly and aggressively defensive in Wright’s sharp-edged, bullying perf, sparking a climate of tension around him that has his wife walking on eggshells. Our view inside their marriage is distinctly colored by the attraction of Stiller’s character to Belinda. But her reciprocal gravitation toward him clearly is accelerated by the warmth and affability he offers, a marked contrast to steely Cody: “I don’t do nothing for fun,” he says without irony.

The pleasure LaBute derives from edgy provocation is apparent in a compellingly played scene in which the outsider relates an incident that illustrates his inherent racism, feeding Cody’s simmering hostility. No less revealing is Belinda’s acknowledgment that marrying Cody gave her an exotic trophy in the whitebread town; a handsome, successful black man who looked good on her arm but now makes her wonder if there was ever any real bond there.

The destabilizing factors behind this triangle are disclosed in a sudden shift that will have some auds feeling duped. But how people respond to the exposure of Cody’s and the Stiller character’s agendas will depend on their predisposition to LaBute’s now established habit of stripping away even the minimal comfort zone he allows those watching his plays. Whatever reaction it elicits, the work remains unpredictable, manifesting the elusiveness of truth and showing an equal-opportunity misanthropy that lets neither white nor black attitudes off the hook.

Given crisp guidance by director Wolfe, who displays a fine ability to arrive at the nerve center of each scene, the trio of actors play off each other with bristling uneasiness that taps into both LaBute’s cynical cruelty and his corrosive humor. And while Peet (a late replacement when Marisa Tomei dropped out) is obviously a film actor who lacks edge and works hard at projecting, she adds interesting depths to her character in scenes of friction with Cody.

But it’s Stiller who provides the production’s arresting pivot, his amiable jokester side offset — but not unbalanced — by the character’s deceitful, disagreeable nature. This points to an actor admirably escaping the complacency of success to seek out fresh challenges.

This Is How It Goes

Public Theater/Anspacher; 278 seats; $60 top

Production: A Public Theater presentation of a play in one act by Neil LaBute. Directed by George C. Wolfe.

Creative: Sets, Riccardo Hernandez; costumes, Sandra Hernandez; lighting, David Weiner; sound, Fitz Patton; projections, Batwin + Robin Prods.; fight direction, Luis Perez; production stage manager, Rick Steiger. Opened March 27, 2005. Reviewed March 24. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast: Man - Ben Stiller Belinda - Amanda Peet Cody - Jeffrey Wright

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