Review: ‘Some Girl(s)’

Four wounded women and the architect of their hurt don't add up to an awful lot in Neil LaBute's elegantly constructed but slight "Some Girl(s)." While it's laced with the usual mordant serving of misogyny and misanthropy, self-loathing and self-congratulation, and it unleashes the trademark revelatory twist, the prolific playwright's work here lacks bite.

Four wounded women and the architect of their hurt don’t add up to an awful lot in Neil LaBute’s elegantly constructed but slight “Some Girl(s).” While it’s laced with the usual mordant serving of misogyny and misanthropy, self-loathing and self-congratulation, and it unleashes the trademark revelatory twist, the prolific playwright’s work here lacks bite. Jo Bonney’s slick production, a personable cast and LaBute’s chiseled dialogue keep the one-act play absorbing, but its indictment — and indulgence — of the emotionally dishonest, commitment-phobic American male feel naggingly familiar.

The casting of a major sitcom star in the lead role — David Schwimmer originated the part in London last spring; Eric McCormack steps into his shoes for the U.S. premiere — clearly is a calculated device. Who could be more apparently innocuous and lovable despite all their foibles than dweeby, sweet-souled Ross from “Friends” or girl-friendly gay Will from “Will & Grace”?

Identified only as Man when the play bowed on the West End last spring and now billed in the program as Guy, the only male on display is an archetypical Everyman who swells hearts and then deflates them with his don’t-look-back, swift-exit strategy. He’s the kind of ostensibly well-meaning but reprobate figure often played for laughs on big and small screens. But as one of the loved-and-left women he revisits here charges, he’s an “assassin,” an “emotional terrorist.”

While LaBute delights in humiliating the guy, exposing his reprehensible behavior and confronting his self-delusion, there’s a suggestion the playwright also wants it both ways.

The character’s odyssey from hotel room to hotel room, ex-girlfriend to ex-girlfriend yields a moment of culpability and remorse. A writer who draws on his relationship experiences for material, Guy debates whether he’s “a shit or a fearless cartographer of the soul,” the latter definition pompously quoting one of his reviews. But his self-examination ultimately proves as fleeting as his own hurt in a final scene that seems glib and shallow, hinting that LaBute both deplores and admires Guy’s emotional survival skills.

Described by the characters as both Pilgrim’s and Rake’s Progress, the plot echoes Jim Jarmusch’s “Broken Flowers,” its fluid, indie-movie mood fed by jazzy lounge music while maids and hotel staff reorganize Neil Patel’s stylish set between each of the four scenes.

The thirtysomething man’s pilgrimage to lovers past is spurred by his imminent marriage to an unseen 22-year-old. She’s pretty and has great highlights that “frame her face,” but Guy is clearly uncertain he’s ready for the big step. As part of his wedding preparations, he decides to make reparations, to tidy up the loose ends of relationships that concluded badly.

First up is Sam (Brooke Smith), the Seattle high school sweetheart he deflowered and dumped on prom night, now a granola-fed mom married to a supermarket manager. Next comes Chicago grad school flame Tyler (Judy Reyes), a sexual dynamo who gives the initial impression her attachment to him was purely physical. Third in line is Lindsay (Fran Drescher), a married older woman and gender-studies teacher caught having an affair with Guy. Final stop is Bobbi (Maura Tierney) in Los Angeles. The suspicion she might have been his great love allows her accusations to get under his skin more than the others.

While Guy’s ulterior motive and underlying calculation provide LaBute’s customary reveal here, the women are mostly smarter than he is, and all harbor varying degrees of resentment. Each encounter begins with him conceding only minor misdemeanors in the relationship’s undoing before being confronted with the full extent of his crimes. As Lindsay points out, the promises of a future that he made to each of the partners he refers to as “some girl” are fairy tales. “That’s why you teach it, I suppose, and write it, too,” she says. “Fiction. Because it is what you deal in as a person.”

This kind of relationship psychology has a vague edge to it while being played, but it feels pat and superficial, leaving little to chew on. The smattering of literary references (Guy sees himself quixotically tilting at windmills) and the oblique equation of the protagonist with truth fabricators like James Frey and JT LeRoy provide no substance. It’s the thorny presence of the four women that gives the play some degree of vitality (though the reason for giving them all androgynous names remains unclear).

Smith seems self-conscious at first, but becomes more moving when she drops her veneer of civility and stops cloaking her anger. However, Sam is mistreated by the playwright, robbed of her dignity in an apologetic coda to her scene. Reyes is warm, sexy and seemingly in control, revealing her scars only gradually.

Drescher and Tierney supply the cast’s most compelling work. Showing an admirable lack of vanity as she strips down to execute Lindsay’s revenge, Drescher is cool and commanding, hostile but not so embittered she has lost her sense of humor. This is the production’s riskiest piece of casting and its most surprising. Tierney is poised, intelligent and flinty, sitting back and clocking her ex’s flimsy justifications with a steady gaze, refusing to buy any of them. It’s a quiet, unshowy perf, shrewdly free from affectation.

That leaves McCormack. Clearly, he knows his way around a stage, and there’s nothing wrong with his work here. But the challenge for any sitcom actor indelibly stamped with the traits of a long-running character are made more manifest by the limitations of LaBute’s writing. The mannerisms of TV character Will — the tics, the high-pitched, ingratiating whininess, the smartass way with a quip — will take some escaping, and the role of Guy provides no getaway vehicle. Inevitably, McCormack is stymied by a character that goes no deeper than his sense of accountability.

Some Girl(s)

Lucille Lortel Theater; 299 seats; $70 top

Production

An MCC Theater presentation by special arrangement with the Lucille Lortel Theater Foundation of a play in one act by Neil LaBute. Directed by Jo Bonney.

Creative

Sets, Neil Patel; costumes, Mimi O'Donnell; lighting, David Weiner; sound, Robert Kaplowitz; production stage manager, Kevin Bertolucci. Opened June 8, 2006. Reviewed June 4. Running time: 1 HOUR, 35 MIN.

Cast

Guy - Eric McCormack Sam - Brooke Smith Tyler - Judy Reyes Lindsay - Fran Drescher Bobbi - Maura Tierney

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