AND SO IT GOES – Neil LaBute trains his eye on race and gender relationships in Ensemble show
By TED MILLS, NEWS-PRESS CORRESPONDENT
Not just a blistering treatise on race, Neil LaBute’s “This Is How It Goes” delivers a course on unreliable narrative in theater. Like the skin of an onion, layers of truth pull back as the play progresses until we’re never really sure about the truth of the matter. And Mr. LaBute does this without disappearing inside his own cleverness. Part of the reason lies in the play, but the rest lies with the cast and crew of Ensemble Theatre, assembled for this season’s final show at the Alhecama Theatre.
“This is how it goes,” says the unnamed Man, played by Aaron Serotsky, in the play’s opening lines. He strolls on with the confidence of a man who’s just been bought a beer and asked to tell his life story. From his entrance onward, we are his captive audience, and we must follow. “I may be an unreliable narrator,” he laughs, like a naughty child. Uh-oh.
The Man has returned to his small hometown, having left behind a law career to focus on being a writer. At the mall, he runs into Belinda (Shannon Koob), a former cheerleader and the Man’s former crush. The Man has lost weight, Belinda notes. Belinda looks the same, he says. But she’s married with two kids, and her spouse is Cody, who had been the track team star in high school.
Cody (Adam Lazarre-White) is black, and his interracial marriage to Belinda raises eyebrows in the community. Or at least that’s what we’re told. The only raised eyebrows we see belong to the (white) Man, and he struggles to deal with his feelings. Is his jealousy simply between two men or between two races? Does one cover, or offer an excuse for, the other?
The Man needs a place to stay. Cody and Belinda rent him the guest house over the garage, and the Man sets about trying to get back into Belinda’s heart, capitalizing on the attraction he felt when he first met her at the mall.
Somewhere in the middle of this straightforward story, things begin to bend. Belinda appears with a black eye and we get a flashback as to how she got it. Or how the Man thinks it happened. And then we get one more version, based on Belinda’s version of events.
Which version do we prefer? And is the scene’s believability based upon our own assumptions about race and gender?
Recently in town, another company’s production of Mr. LaBute’s “The Shape of Things” featured a devious art student who manipulates her clueless boyfriend and then drops him, her experiment finished.
Sometimes Mr. LaBute’s less interesting works feel that way too — the audience the victim of a manipulative voice. But “This Is How It Goes” progresses beyond that and presents so many versions of an explosive situation that one could almost pick ‘n’ mix the outcome that feels the truest . . . or the most comfortable.
By the final scene, we’re not sure who’s fooling whom, but all come out of the situation with what they (think they) want. In that sense, “This is How It Goes” is a comedy, but set in a minefield.
And though we know it’s coming, somehow the dropping of the n-bomb still elicits a gasp from the (primarily white) crowd, which director Jonathan Fox and his cast must have appreciated. In such an intimate space, the word swelled to the size of the whole room.
The performances are uniformly excellent. Mr. Serotsky has the kind of warm, open face that makes us want to hear and believe his story. (I can’t imagine that sort of feeling elicited by Ben Stiller, who took on the role in the play’s initial New York run). Mr. Serotsky plays the Man as almost too nice, and for the first half, his decisions don’t make sense, until the second half sheds new light on them.
Ms. Koob’s Belinda comes at us half-translucent, half-opaque, weighed down by the realization that she’s stuck with the choices she made during high school, yet wise enough to figure a way out.
Her sadness, though rarely expressed, is palpable.
And Mr. Lazarre-White’s Cody is all guarded macho-strutting, but built on a proud foundation, guarding his father’s memory and emulating his business sense. Race issues directly tie into his economic status, and he wisely knows that the further he rises, the more people will want to take him down.
Jonathan Fox moves these intelligent characters through their chess-like game, and one comes out of the evening having felt something very important was and still is at stake, way beyond the walls of the theater.
‘THIS IS HOW IT GOES’
When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; through June 24
Where: Alhecama Theatre,
914 Santa Barbara St.
Cost: $25 to $37.50
Information: 962-8606 or www.ensembletheatre.com