It’s weird, watching Neil LaBute trying to be subtle. Even working with that foxiest of actors, Ed Harris, in a solo piece about a man who has been guarding a terrible secret for most of his adult life, scribe’s attempts at subtlety come off as labored and coy. In a role he originated in the play’s premiere at Everyman Palace Theater in Cork, Ireland, Harris is wonderfully watchable in “Wrecks” as a sorrowful widower who reveals that awful secret at his wife’s funeral. But the character — a grownup specimen of those immature LaBute males who make no apologies for their revolting acts of self-indulgence — is a perfect phoney.
With his steely blue eyes and macho mien, Harris projects the very essence of a man of inner strength and fiercely independent spirit. In the role of Edward Carr, a Midwestern car dealer proud of “the little empire” he built by refurbishing classic American automobiles, he easily could represent the entrepreneurial spirit of an earlier time and a more confident nation. Not your typical LaBute hero, but perhaps an idealized version of that narcissistic whelp, should he ever grow up and develop an interest in anyone but himself and his own appetites.
Encountered at the funeral home hosting the wake for his beloved wife of 30 years, Edward articulates his grief in properly manly fashion — in private.
Serving as his own director, LaBute handles the staging smartly by allowing Edward to maintain a physical presence in the reception room while mentally pacing the floor in front of the coffin and delivering his interior monologue out of sight of the other mourners.
To set this visually arresting scene, Klara Zieglerova has positioned a handsome black coffin beneath a blown-up photo of the deceased and composed a formal arrangement of the usual accoutrements of flowers, candles and urns. It all looks suitably funereal, including Edward, in his shiny black mourning suit.
Wearing a sad smile as understated as that suit, Harris is entirely sympathetic, as Edward vividly recounts his history with his wife and expands persuasively on his love for this wealthy older woman. But until the final shocking revelations of the play, when the widower proves not to be the man we thought him to be, it’s a one-note song of love and farewell, repetitive in substance and monochromatic in tone.
Once the secret of this marital relationship begins to emerge, Edward begins to look less like a mythic hero of the old Western school and more like a bona fide LaBute character. However eloquently Harris conveys the man’s halting expressions of love, this is a guy with a moral code strategically designed for personal gratification — and the hell with cost or consequence. Stripped of artifice, the rationale he offers for his reprehensible behavior has a lot in common with the excuses of LaBute’s other alpha male animals; it just sounds slicker.
Once this is made clear, Edward becomes a more interesting character than the heartbroken wretch we’ve seen so far, weeping over his wife’s coffin and smoking himself to death. But by this time, this talky play has just about talked itself out.
Edward stands defiantly proud and unrepentant of his actions. But because there is no one else onstage to challenge this far-fetched character — and since he has no conscience to wrestle with — there’s no chance to see how he’d do in an honest fight.