Ed Harris is fantastically likable as the lone character, a grieving widower, in Neil LaBute's latest exercise in surface-level provocation, "Wrecks." But LaBute's direction of his talented star only accentuates the central script problem familiar from his past work: the lack of a clear authorial point of view on the morally horrendous behavior he (sort of) dramatizes.

Ed Harris is fantastically likable as the lone character, a grieving widower, in Neil LaBute’s latest exercise in surface-level provocation, “Wrecks.” But LaBute’s direction of his talented star only accentuates the central script problem familiar from his past work: the lack of a clear authorial point of view on the morally horrendous behavior he (sort of) dramatizes. LaBute also is doing some characteristic critic-baiting with the play; he makes it impossible to review it properly without giving away its central twist, so those who object to spoilers are advised to stop reading now.

Harris plays 55-year-old Edward Carr, whose message in the first three-quarters of the short play is that he really, really loved his wife. A lot. In the past, LaBute has leaned heavily on direct address, and he uses it exclusively here: The conceit is that Carr’s psyche is in the slumber room of a funeral parlor, narrating his internal monologue to whomever the audience is meant to represent (it’s never clear), as his body stands in the anteroom, greeting mourners.

LaBute writes Edward as a plain-spoken, self-made Midwestern entrepreneur, who charms us with the openness of his declarations of love for his dear JoJo and with his wandering, distracted storytelling style, which indicates his emotional distress. Harris is so disarmingly good at seeming to lose his train of thought that it periodically seems he has forgotten his lines. This becomes, for too long, the only palpable dramatic tension.

In retrospect, however, LaBute is drip-feeding clues toward the inevitable surprise plot turn, as Edward fills us in on the story of his and JoJo’s marriage: People used to gossip about the difference in their ages — she was 15 years older — but they were “star-crossed” and meant to be together.

He wins her away from her first husband after a fistfight, and they build a successful business recovering and renting classic cars, the ostensible reason for the play’s title. He cherishes their family life — they have two boys and two girls — because he was raised as a foster child and never felt secure. The sex with JoJo is amazing: He loves “being inside her.”

Figured it out yet? Final clue: Say the title of the play out loud. Yes, LaBute’s taboo du jour is incest, and this is a loose retelling of the Oedipus myth. Edward acknowledges in the final minutes that JoJo was both his wife and his mother.

But what is LaBute trying to say by transposing this story to contemporary times and initially portraying his Oedipus figure as such a stand-up guy? Not for the first time, his agenda seems to be to bash through the walls of what society considers acceptable, without taking dramaturgical responsibility for the shards of theme and character that fly around the play as a result.

Though it’s a bit unclear, Edward seems to indicate, late on, that he knew exactly what he was doing when he started a relationship with his mother, whereas poor JoJo never knew — he kept her in the dark for 30 years. Nor does Edward seem to have enlightened his children that they are the result of two generations of inbreeding (JoJo became pregnant with him when she was raped by an uncle).

This is shocking, monstrous behavior, but is LaBute’s point that because Edward really loved JoJo, it’s all OK? If the writer intends make a connection between this individual case and societal standards, this is not made clear; if he merely means to tell an outrageous story, he’s being childish.

This physically impressive production is the theatrical highlight of Cork’s year as European Capital of Culture. For the set, Kiara Zieglorova has enlarged a photograph of a woman’s face to form a scrim dividing the forestage and upstage areas, and placed enough convincing-looking funeral parlor furniture around to ensure the actor doesn’t look too isolated on the big Everyman Palace stage. Zieglorova’s costume, too, is smart: Shiny cowboy boots peek out from under Edward’s simple black suit, an indication that this character, now crumpled with grief, usually has a swagger.

Cork undoubtedly has scored a coup by having a star of Harris’ caliber make his European stage debut in one of its theaters. It’s a shame the vehicle is no match for his talents.

Wrecks

Everyman Palace Theater, Cork, Ireland; 646 seats; E23 $27 top

Production

An Everyman Palace presentation in association with Cork 2005 Capital of Culture and Kenneth Madden of a play in one act, written and directed by Neil LaBute.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Klara Zieglerova, lighting; Paul Denby, production stage manager, Mary Michele Miner. Opened, reviewed Nov. 23, 2005. Running time: 1 HOUR, 10 MIN.

Cast

Edward Carr - Ed Harris
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more