Produced by Studio Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor, Esq.
Eric Feldman, Benton Greene and Anne Bowles (Photo by Scott Suchman)
I was astonished to discover that Studio Theatre’s latest Neil LaBute play, This Is How It Goes, is actually a musical. Cody and Belinda are gloriously intoxicated by fresh young love. As they sing their opening number, "Even Though We’re An Interracial Couple, We Can Still Be Happy," fluffy pink bunny rabbits float out onto the stage, and join the chorus in tiny voices reminiscent of Alvin and the Chipmunks. And then…
Oh, sorry, joking. I was just being an unreliable narrator, as Eric Feldman’s unnamed protagonist (the program lists him as "Man") proclaims himself to be. LaBute’s latest is actually much like his previous plays, a witty, discomforting confrontation with our own worst demons, a sermonette for sinners delivered by a character so sleazy we cannot help but recognize ourselves in him.
This Is How It Goes is ostensibly about race, but its larger and more convincing themes all revolve around the giddy disregard for truth that informs the play. Lying is like stealing, Cody (Benton Greene) observes, because "lying is theft of the truth." Feldman’s character steals the truth throughout the play. Sometimes, he admits to doing so.
This is how This Is How It Goes goes. Feldman’s character (who is as white as Karl Rove), is a onetime high school fatboy and misfit who has used his ROTC training to reintegrate himself into society. He introduces himself as a man of many empty words – many many empty words. "There was a girl," he says. "There’s always a girl. Except… except where there isn’t a girl. But in this case, there was a girl." Feldman’s character, a lawyer who aspires to become a writer, is obviously a two-time loser in the candor department.
He describes his seemingly chance encounter with Belinda (Anne Bowles), a blonde Aryan and the romantic dream of his adolescent days, outside a local Sears store. The Sears logo appears and Belinda herself materializes, and Feldman’s character proceeds to engage her in a witty, banal, uncomfortable series of comments and silences which are part Albee, part Beckett and all LaBute. We learn that she married Cody, her high school honey, and that they have a two-year-old named Ralph. This appears to amaze Feldman’s character because, as he explains after she leaves, well, Cody’s black.
Cody is a man suffused, as Shakespeare once said in Titus Andronicus, with "arrogance, spleen and pride." A fierce and powerful athlete, he is quick to anger, slow to forgive. ("It’s fine. It’s not o.k." he says after one offense, quickly describing the difference between toleration and forgiveness.) He is a successful businessman who has little time for any opinions other than his own. He is quick to question assumptions; drinks only water; and insists that he does nothing for fun. Even his charitable work is tinged with anger; when Feldman’s character mutters something about "giving something back," Cody disdainfully remarks that the phrase implies that he received something from somebody.
At least, that’s the picture Feldman’s character gives us of Cody.
Feldman’s character proceeds to manipulate the story, seamlessly slipping into scenes with Belinda and Cody and stepping out whenever useful to spin the encounter to us. On at least one occasion – showing a confrontation between Belinda and Cody – he admits his version is implausible, and he compels the characters to reenact the encounter, this time corresponding it to the story Belinda told him. On another occasion, he has Belinda give him a glass of water and a long, passionate kiss while he is cutting the lawn – a scene almost certainly more from imagination than from memory.
The objective of Feldman’s character is clear from the outset: he wants the girl. And it gives away no important element of the story to say that he gets her. But how does race enter into the picture? In most specifics, LaBute is not clear, and where he is clear, he’s not convincing. Feldman’s character (and by extension LaBute) implies that for white America, racial judgment and condemnation lie just below the surface. This may be true but the text of the play did not convince. The several racist remarks of Feldman’s character (who insists that he was only joking) each brought gasps from the Studio audience. Indeed, they seemed similar to the one which radio DJ The Greaseman issued a few years ago, at the cost of his professional career. They did not seem typical of white people, even of the despicable Yuppie class to which Feldman’s character belongs.
And, of course, maybe Feldman’s character didn’t say them. He is a lawyer-turned-writer – the definition of an unreliable narrator, after all.
The unreliable narrator can be a spectacular device if the audience can decipher the bias which makes the narrator unreliable. In this instance, however, Feldman’s character appears to make stuff up for the pure pleasure of it. "You know how it is," he says, over and over, inviting the other characters, and the audience to make up part of the story themselves, and thus join in his conspiracy of lying. He leaves sentences incomplete; he shrugs and gestures in response to questions; he gives the truth no more regard than he gives used dental floss.
The climactic revelation – the one which explains how Feldman’s character gets the girl – is a difficult one to credit. In another play, in which the audience trusts the narrator, one might be inclined to give the story the benefit of the doubt, but in this play, where the narrator has vociferously disclaimed all credibility, the game doesn’t seem worth the candle. The audience has no solid place to which to anchor itself – not in credibility, and not in character sympathy: indeed, watching Cody and Feldman’s character circle around Belinda was like imagining a creep sandwich with a woman in the middle.
None of this is meant to be critical of Studio’s production, which was impeccable. Greene was particularly compelling as Cody: truly terrifying in his rage (at one point an entire section of the audience flinched as Greene snapped his head their way) but soft and gentle when needed. Feldman carried his nasty load with convincing aplomb; his smug nasal persona radiating through most of his performance, occasionally dissolving into heartfelt sincerity, which Feldman would then withdraw in an instant. Bowles, too, did fine work in a role which was not as fully drawn by LaBute as the others were. Belinda was written to be prey, but Bowles managed to find the character’s dignity and integrate it with the rest of her persona. Director Paul Mullins gave us a beautifully clean production, which rendered every conceivable laugh out of a very funny script without allowing us to forget that we were watching high drama.
But, Geez Louise, Mr. LaBute, theater audiences, like country music fans, need something to believe in. Here, one last example of why this show’s audiences may leave Studio not sure of what they saw.
Feldman’s character collects baseball cards, and one of Cody’s great regrets is that he gave Feldman’s character a 1952 Jackie Robinson rookie card. The Jackie Robinson 1952 rookie card is particularly valuable, Cody points out, because white people tore up the card when they found it in their bubble gum packages, thus reducing the available number of cards. And this card is particularly valuable, because there was a flaw in the printing. Cody would go to great lengths to get this card back. Remember, this is Feldman’s character who is bringing us this information. Now, get this:
Jackie Robinson’s rookie season was 1947. There is no 1952 Jackie Robinson rookie card.
This Is How It Goes (Runtime: 90 minutes) plays Tuesdays through Sundays through February 11 at the Mead Theatre of Studio Theatre, 1501 Fourteenth Street NW. Tuesdays through Saturdays are at 8 p.m.; Sundays are at 7. Additional matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. No show on Tuesday, January 9. Tickets are $39-$55 and may be had by calling 202.332.3300 or on the website, http://www.studiotheatre.org/.