Ed Harris performs with distinction at the Geffen's intimate Kenis space.

Neil LaBute’s ongoing examination of the morality play raging within every human heart is advanced in a minor but fascinating key in “Wrecks,” the monodrama Ed Harris performs with distinction at the Geffen’s intimate Kenis space. Bereaved widower Edward Carr’s rambling memoir poses a true thespian’s challenge, to which too-infrequent treader of the boards Harris rises through qualities familiar from his film work: manifest charisma, and an uncommon empathy for the common man.

The sprawling floral arrangement atop the closed coffin in designer Sibyl Wickersheimer’s spare, coolly inviting mortuary viewing room attests to the esteem in which the deceased was held, as does her eager husband: Mary Jo was his goddess, he intones; his Jo-Jo, his queen; mother of his kids and his right arm.

Diffident and mostly tearless, Edward seems to be keeping it together rather well. But more is afoot than meets the eye in his incessant smoking, and in the murmur of offstage voices which (he tells us with wry contempt) is actually himself greeting mourners. Not content with encapsulating Jo-Jo’s virtues in a series of brief handshakes, his conscience — or whatever this specter is — needs to unburden itself in full.

What transpires over 75 minutes is a narrative reminiscent of the great short story writer Saki, who located horror everywhere in everyday life.

A classical tragedy’s hero moves from ignorance to self-knowledge to arrive at catharsis, the audience preaware of every plot point. But here we’re the ones wallowing in ignorance, with all-knowing Edward slowly, methodically revealing what lay beneath his idyllic union. If the cards are played right — and LaBute and Harris know how to turn every trick — the chill up your spine at evening’s end won’t be the winter cold.

While maintaining impeccable poise, Harris employs the subtlest of means to drag us into Edward’s web. Hints of pugnacity, even violence seep through the facade of courtly gentility. Rants on today’s autos, Shirley Temple’s upbringing and pop psychology seem off-topic but track a sinister circle back to himself (with helmer LaBute deftly managing Carr’s spatial relationships with his audience and spouse).

For all Carr’s mysterious ardor, he remains first and foremost a good man of rock-ribbed decency and a touch of the Puritan. That self-possession ultimately invests the tale with its final sting, when we’re forced to reconcile his geniality with the truth matter-of-factly laid at our feet.

Lap-Chi Chu’s lighting puts shimmering focus on every lifted eyebrow and dropped jaw signalling the presence of one truly haunted by, yet somehow at peace with, past and present sin.

Wrecks

Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater; 122 seats; $74 top

Production

A Geffen Playhouse presentation of a play in one act written and directed by Neil LaBute.

Creative

Sets, Sybil Wickersheimer; costumes, Lynette Meyer; lighting, Lap-Chi Chu; sound, Cricket S. Myers; production stage manager, Mary Michele Miner. Opened, reviewed Feb. 7, 2010; runs through Mar. 7. Running time: 1 HR, 15 MINS.

Cast

Edward Carr - Ed Harris
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