If you’re going to expose the raw psychological wounds of childhood abuse, it’s a good idea to bring compassion and fresh insight. In addition to a bag of tricks now so familiar and formulaic that the nasty twist feels more like an inevitable punchline than a shocking provocation, Neil LaBute brings mostly smug moral superiority to his unrewarding new play, “In a Dark Dark House.” Despite a volatile performance from Frederick Weller full of tightly wound anger, the drama’s uncomfortable intensity feels too calculated to be rooted in emotional truth.
From the start, the tone of Carolyn Cantor’s stiff production works against the stinging observation so inherent to LaBute’s writing. There’s a nagging self-consciousness in evidence, right down to Beowulf Boritt’s cartoonish set of cheery green lawns and crisp blue skies — the innocuous America so tirelessly upended by this playwright to reveal the ugliness and deception beneath the surface.
The first of the one-act’s three scenes takes place on the grounds of an upscale psych facility, where former lawyer Drew (Ron Livingston) has been sent for court-ordered rehab after an unspecified incident. Livingston’s ineffectual performance has none of the duality necessary to hint that he may have an agenda.
The actor conveys no suggestion that he was an unethical professional shark, growing rich by feeding off vulnerable companies. Nor does he invite sympathy for Drew’s deep dysfunction, which he now claims is the result of sexual abuse he suffered as a child.
His semi-estranged brother Terry (Weller), an underemployed military vet running on barely suppressed rage, has been called upon to corroborate Drew’s troubled history in court. In addition to the gnawing division of their economic realities, tension between the brothers appears fueled by Terry’s apparent guilt over his failure to warn Drew as a child of the nature of Todd, the man who supposedly abused him. There’s also lingering fallout from the damage inflicted by their violent father.
Drew confides he would murder Todd if he could get away with it — or better yet, have Terry do it, continuing a tradition of big brother fighting little brother’s battles. Those seeds of menace sprout in scene two, when Terry turns up on the mini-golf course where Todd’s flirty 16-year-old daughter Jennifer (Louisa Krause) is working.
We don’t see any actual violence, and LaBute maintains ambiguity about the outcome of the encounter through to the end. But Jennifer is written as such an irritating flake that when Terry stands over her brandishing a putting iron, the response is less fear for the character’s safety than impatience for him to shut her up.
As well as his customary final-act surprise, LaBute’s specialty is the sly dissemination of information to form a scathing picture of pain and hatred masked by his characters’ acidic banter. That all happens efficiently enough here in the gradual revelation of Terry’s history and his conflicted feelings about it, and when the veracity of Drew’s story is questioned. But somehow it all feels unengagingly rote.
LaBute is generally on firmer ground in the arena of man-woman sexual/romantic issues or insidious social ills than in the Sam Shepard territory of friction between brothers and the legacy of an unyielding father.
He voices the contentious view that some children feel love for their adult sexual abusers that’s lacking in the more conventional channels of their lives, but this comes across as material designed to get under an audience’s skin rather than the genuinely audacious, thoughtful treatment of, say, Pedro Almodovar’s “Bad Education.”
Despite the unevenness of the hyper-productive playwright’s work (which had its most recent peak with the unexpectedly affecting “Fat Pig,” premiered at the Lortel in 2004), LaBute always manages to attract accomplished actors, no doubt drawn by the complexity of roles with punchy dialogue and dark underbellies. But here, he has made his characters so unsympathetic that their animosities and anxieties are more irksome than intriguing.
Even with his annoyingly exaggerated tough-guy accent, Weller offers combustible work that certainly commands attention, but it’s difficult to care much about what happened to any of these characters, past or present.