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Neil LaBute's The Break of Noon and Crack Whore Galore — Live!

Crack Whore Galore — deeply in love with themselves
PHOTO BY DANY ROEW

We come not to bury Neil LaBute, but to praise him. This may be the only positive review of his play The Break of Noon, currently at the Geffen Playhouse, that you're likely to read. It's been roasted by critics from coast to coast since it premiered in late 2010 at New York's MCC Theatre, before traveling west on what might be called a sinking ship.

The consensus of opinion is that the play is too single-toned, too thin even for its extended one-act form; its central character is too obviously obnoxious; and Jo Bonney's flashy direction tries to compensate with glitz for the play's missing heart, or soul, or whatever it is a play grappling with theological themes is supposed to have at its core.

Unfortunately, they've got it all backward. You get a clearer sense of the play's ambitions from reading it than from seeing this production. Bonney's glitz doesn't apologize for the play's lack of substance. Rather, it pulverizes the substance that is so clearly in the words, and in the dramatic situations surrounding them.

You won't find a more single-toned play than Molière's Tartuffe, a world classic, also based on a transparently obnoxious oaf who parks himself in his gullible friend's home, against the redundant and increasingly desperate advice of the host's family, before trying to marry his host's daughter while seducing his wife. (LaBute's protagonist faces similar harsh truths from a sequence of characters, and similarly ignores them.) Through all of this, Tartuffe claims to be a humble representative of God, while preaching the gospel of his personal salvation — much like LaBute's protagonist. If Tartuffe had been staged in 17th-century Paris with a loud, reverberating thump closing out each scene (Darron L. West's sound design takes the Geffen's impressive sound system to its limits), and if the proscenium arch had been decorated with carnival bulbs that blind the audience intermittently (lighting design here by David Weiner), the French would have been carping about what a thin and annoying play Molière had written. Because they would have been too diverted, their attention too shattered by the gaudy attempts to keep it riveted, to understand that there's a fair amount of introspection in Tartuffe, as there is in The Break of Noon.

In the preface to the play's print edition, LaBute writes that this is a comparatively introspective play for him, and he's right. In the play itself, the opening stage directions call for his central character, John Smith (here played by Kevin Anderson), to be blinded by a harsh light, from which, in his daze, he attempts to distinguish the light from the dark.

Bonney (who also directed the play's New York premiere) subjects the audience to the same sensation. This makes some conceptual sense while preventing us from concentrating on the more subtle threads that connect the sequence of short scenes, and that provide the play with its meaning. Because LaBute, like Molière, is a national class clown, a satirist hurling barbs at sundry hypocrisies, and our inability to know the truth, let alone to tell it.

To avoid misunderstanding, LaBute is not Molière reincarnated, but their plays share a proclivity for cruelty and for trying to fathom why and how people lie — not only to each other, but to themselves.

In that opening scene, John describes a massacre at his workplace, a scene of carnage created by a deranged ex-employee to whom John had given his walking papers. And yet John was the only survivor — reason enough for this solipsist to believe he was chosen to be God's vessel, to espouse a better way of life, as though the innocent dead whom he did nothing to save were less worthy for this task. John markets his abhorrent philosophy first with a cell phone photograph of the carnage, and then with appearances on talk shows, which understandably earn him the hatred of people who know better — which is everybody else in the play, and probably much of the general American population.

The key to this play lies in the quality of John's self-deception, and that's a very subtle, crucial and revelatory truth to depict — impossible to see amidst flashing lights and the sounds of thunder. Anderson, playing the struggle with an oafish conviction, gets at some of the bewilderment leading to a spiritual conversion, however fraudulent. Yet his "truth" drifts at times into a kind of polemic as facile as that of an overreaching preacher. This also contributes to making the play appear thinner than it really is.

As a model of this play's potential, the best Tartuffe in memory was played by Gerard Depardieu in 1984 — a solemn swine who believed every word he uttered, and which he uttered without fanfare. He was, in short, the kind of destroyer of lives, and of truth, who makes our world such a terrifying place.

The people into whom John collides are his attorney (John Earl Jelks), doubling as a police detective who's not quite sure John wasn't complicit in the debacle; John's ex-wife, Jenny (the fine Catherine Dent, who doubles as John's mistress, with whom he now wants to come clean); and a prostitute (Tracy Chimo), whose soul John tries to save in a well-performed if de rigueur liaison. Chimo doubles as TV talk-show host, with such perfectly calibrated, sleek turns of the hip and expressions of condescension that the scene skates over its potential, potent awkwardness.

Don't really know how good this play is, but I do know that we haven't yet seen what's possible.

Ensemble Studio Theater – Los Angeles is staging an obscenely funny late-night rock-music sketch show, Crack Whore Galore — Live!, at its new Atwater Village theater. Created by Ryan Oliver, Danny Roew, Graham Sibley, Tonya Cornelisse and director Gates McFadden, it features Sibley and Cornelisse as Brit-trash rockers who met in a London rehab and somehow made it to Hollywood, or at least to its sidewalks, in pursuit of rock & roll stardom. Their band is called Crack Whore, and their hourlong cabaret opens with warm-up balladeer Jackie Tohn on acoustic guitar, crooning with remarkable vocal dexterity about low self-esteem and love. Into her act crash wafer-thin, obnoxiously loud Abbey (in shades, skirt and torn fishnets) and Danny Galore (in vest and ripped shirt), wielding a shopping cart filled with mannequins and other crap for their act.

Commenting loudly on how each of Tohn's songs is worse than the last, they "set up" behind her while she attempts to finish her act. They smash open a roll-down screen (to be used for a preview of their sex tape, sold after the show in the lobby). The moment the livid Tohn leaves the stage captures the moment '60s folk yielded to punk.

What follows is pornography in song. In fact, during a 30-second "break," guitarist Danny impregnates drummer Abbey for at least the sixth time since they met. You'd think Abbey is beyond a meltdown, but in a moment of despondency, she crawls inside the shopping cart: "I can't do this anymore, Danny, I just can't."

To woo her back, and out, he croons the love song that he wrote just for her: "It's all clogged up/The pressure's all built up/I think I might explode/Now I need to blow my fucking load. ..."

She swoons in adoration, and they're back on track. The power of love, and of song.

They try to tell us their "story," or to sell us their story — which is the larger point — but can't agree on the details. She's told a wrong version so many times, he can't quite grasp what's real anymore. There, but for the grace of God ...

It's not a life-changing event, but the energy electrifies, the music is surprisingly good and the performances are top-tier.

THE BREAK OF NOON | By NEIL LABUTE | GEFFEN PLAYHOUSE, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Wstwd. | Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m., Sat., 3 & 8 p.m., Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. | Through March 6 | (310) 208-5454

CRACK WHORE GALORE — LIVE! | Created by RYAN OLIVER, DANNY ROEW, GRAHAM SIBLEY, TONYA CORNELISSE and GATES McFADDEN | Presented by ENSEMBLE STUDIO THEATER–LOS ANGELES at the ATWATER VILLAGE THEATRE, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village | Thurs. & Sat., 10:30 p.m. | Through March 12 | ensemblestudiotheatrela.org | (323) 644-1929

 

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