In a forest dark and deep, lightning sunders nature’s sleep. The cabin lights flicker, and then go out – “why, it’s about us!” the audience doth shout. Could playwright Neil LaBute, whose plots are puzzlebook perfection, have written about us on the fly, in our heated lightless malefection?
Alas and goddam, it is not to be. The thunder, the lightning, the periodic blackouts are all meaningless atmospherics, as is much of LaBute’s implausible In a Forest, Dark and Deep. Director Ed Herendeen and his good cast supply a NASA-quality mirror and some fabulous smoke, but it is all smoke and mirrors nonetheless.
Here is the story, as it presents itself at play’s opening: Betty (Johanna Day, who you may remember for her fine work as a free-spirited woman whose husband is dying of cancer in Arena’s The Quality of Life) is packing up a cabin, putting books, plates and dishes in cardboard boxes. Her brother Bobby (Joey Collins), a bigoted, misogynistic half-wit, shows up to help her. Bobby is twisted up in anger and bitterness, directed at his ex-wives who he used to hit, at Betty’s profession (she is the Dean of Humanities at a liberal arts college), at anyone who reads the New Yorker, and especially at Betty herself, for her real and imagined sins, stretching back into their childhood (both Betty and Bobby are now middle-aged).
So here is the first implausibility: are there no professional movers any more? For certainly it should be worth a grand or so to Dean Betty in order to keep this loud-mouthed, aggressive lunatic out of her cabin, and her life. Many of us have relatives like this, and we owe them a blood obligation – to wave and nod at them at family gatherings over the holiday. To do more – and certainly to invite him into one’s home – makes about as much sense as inviting Dracula over your threshold, and would be less fun.
Indeed, Bobby is so fiercely obnoxious that at first I thought the deficiency was Collins’, who seemed to be delivering a caricature. But with the passage of time, it became apparent that Collins’ Bobby, like Jessica Rabbit, wasn’t bad – he was just drawn that way. In fact, Collins struggles heroically to give Bobby the human dimension that LaBute omits. Bobby is a character who at one moment asserts that the soles of black people’s feet are also black and at another delivers a sophisticated bon mot about the priorities of speakers at academic conferences. Collins does about as much as is humanly possible with him.
The bottom line of Bobby’s complaint about Betty is this: she likes to have sex. When she was young, she liked to have a lot of sex, with a lot of different lovers, in a lot of different ways, and she indulged her desires, vigorously and enthusiastically. Had she been male, we would have said he was sewing his wild oats, but since she is female, Bobby calls her a slut, a whore, and – well, you can imagine the rest. He claims to have been made physically ill by her sexual expressiveness, and blames her for the breakup of their parents’ relationship. In short, Bobby is a textbook example of the abusive male bully, wrapped up in a blanket of entitlement and self-righteousness.
And here’s the second, and greater, implausibility: as the play moves toward its climax, Bobby the abuser becomes Jeremiah the prophet. He becomes the play’s moral voice. It turns out that there is more going on than Betty has revealed, and Bobby, relentlessly cross-examining her in a style that is part Perry Mason and part Mike Tyson, gets the truth out of her. His braying response to each confession of failure on her part shows us clearly that he magnifies himself by diminishing her. In the end, he offers to help her – regardless of the magnitude of her crime – as long as she confesses all to him. He is self-righteous without being righteous.
So what’s the point? In LaBute’s best work, his searing honesty forces us to confront truths about ourselves which we would rather leave unsaid. But what truth is here? That if a woman has a high-octane sex life in her youth, she is bound to live a life of evil? That you should always listen to your beer-swilling, wife-beating brother, as his moral center is better than yours? Or maybe that, as Bobby says early in the production, only gay people read the New Yorker.
The play is otherwise full of silliness and implausibility. Betty describes a student who comes from a wealthy family, and who later applies for financial assistance. (You can conjure a story which could explain the discrepancy, but LaBute doesn’t, and the audience should be concentrating on the play before it, not making explanations for its plot holes.) Bobby at one point tries to have sex with Betty, a scene which appears to have no value beyond shock. And there are other such scenes and problems, but you get the picture.
This being a Labute, In a Forest is also filled with astonishing wit, most of which is at Bobby’s expense. My favorite (and most of the opening-night’s audience) is a scene in which Bobby piously describes a person with whom he wouldn’t try to have sex, in order to prove his own sexual morality. But this wit also serves to underscore Bobby’s unsuitability as the play’s moral voice, or its center.
“The truth hurts,” Bobby spews toward the play’s end. “That’s why they call it that.” Thus, in a nutshell, LaBute describes his own play: a cliché, followed by a non sequitur.
In a Forest, Dark and Deep
By Neil LaBute
Directed by Ed Herendeen
Produced by the Contemporary American Theater Festival
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes, without intermission