Bash: Latterday Plays

Neil LaBute's two films, "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends and Neighbors" depicted some truly despicable characters, especially misogynist men who get pleasure from inflicting emotional pain on their friends and lovers. In his triptych of one-act plays, under the umbrella title "Bash," LaBute mines a similar terrain but from a different angle, presenting characters who put forth a wholesome facade that masks the explosive violence underneath.

With:
With: Calista Flockhart, Ron Eldard, Paul Rudd.

Neil LaBute’s two films, “In the Company of Men” and “Your Friends and Neighbors” depicted some truly despicable characters, especially misogynist men who get pleasure from inflicting emotional pain on their friends and lovers. In his triptych of one-act plays, under the umbrella title “Bash,” LaBute mines a similar terrain but from a different angle, presenting characters who put forth a wholesome facade that masks the explosive violence underneath. Three captivating performances from the stars take full advantage of LaBute’s perverse creations and arouse a deeply disturbing emotional response.

Calista Flockhart delivers the monologue “Medea Redux” without employing any of Ally McBeal’s trademark body language: she doesn’t roll her eyes even once, or giggle insecurely, or smirk. Instead, she stares forward, her face expressing little more than exhaustion — maybe a hint of tedium — as the character cooperatively narrates her tale into a tape recorder for the benefit of offstage police. She tells of how she became involved with a teacher when she was only 13, of how she demonstrated total loyalty to him, keeping their relationship secret even after she became pregnant and had a child. Despite the sordid nature of the story, Flockhart lulls the audience with the apparent normality of her character only to pull the rug out with a startling revelation, delivered with a studied blandness that makes it even more macabre.

Flockhart’s performance is topped by Ron Eldard in the second piece, also with a Greek title that reveals a lot about its story, “Iphegenia in Orem.”

Eldard plays a traveling salesman, a Mormon who is so weighed down with a secret that he brings an inebriated stranger into his hotel room for the sole purpose of relieving himself with a full confession. Proceeding in fits and starts, the man tells of his infant daughter’s accidental death, moves on to mundane details about his career and ultimately circles back for another harrowing surprise. In a beautifully nuanced portrayal, Eldard fully captures this character’s terrible sense of humor, his seething resentment of women in the workplace, and, most of all, his desperate need to justify his actions by blaming anyone and everyone but himself.

The last piece, “A Gaggle of Saints,” is performed by Paul Rudd and Flockhart facing the audience as they piece together a story of two Mormon college students who take a weekend trip with friends to New York for a church party. After the “bash,” the girls in the group take a nap, while Rudd tells of a violent encounter.

Unlike the previous characters, Rudd shows no sadness or regret: his account is a boast, and needs no justification further than a reference to the Scriptures. The violence for him comes across as if it were a purification. This last play contains the strongest imagery of all, as the two lovers lean on each other in a picture-perfect pose that belies everything we’ve just been told.

This piece is mostly Rudd’s vehicle, and Flockhart graciously cedes the stage, remaining seated the entire time. But even here she communicates the subtle complexities of LaBute’s writing, conveying just enough to let us know that her boyfriend’s bloodlust is perhaps exactly the feature that drew her to him in the first place.

Joe Mantello’s direction is impeccable, and with set designer Scott Pask and lighting designer James Vermeulen, he creates separate worlds for each of these individual works. Monologues are a difficult form to pull off, especially ones that don’t rely on high-energy antics or easygoing humor, and the actors deserve special credit for setting aside all vestiges of glamour and trusting that, with LaBute’s subtle poetry to lead them, they can make the audience cringe more by doing less.

Bash: Latterday Plays

Canon Theatre; 382 seats; $75 top

Production: A Stephen Pevner and Canon Theatricals/Joan Stein and Susan Dietz presentation of three one-act plays by Neil LaBute. Directed by Joe Mantello.

Cast: With: Calista Flockhart, Ron Eldard, Paul Rudd.Set, Scott Pask; costumes, Lynette Meyer; lighting, James Vermeulen; sound, Red Ramona; production stage manager, Ronn Goswick. Opened, reviewed Nov. 28, 1999. Closes Dec. 19. Running time: 2 HOURS, 5 MIN.

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