Bash at the Almeida Theatre

Short, sharp and shocking, each of the pieces in Neil LaBute's trilogy of plays is as brutal and uncompromising as they are understated and meticulously plotted.

LaBute, best known for his disturbingly unnerving films In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, is a masterfully observant but unyieldingly pessimistic writer whose characters unfailingly offer the worst characteristics of humankind: revenge, greed and hatred, all of which result in variations of killing which are presented as perfectly reasonable responses to the situations they find themselves in.

In the first monologue, a woman who was the teenage victim of sexual abuse by a teacher, as a result of which she has a son by him, exacts her revenge on the teacher; though I don't want to give the key plot point away, it's pretty obvious from the play's title, Medea Redux. As played by the edgily chainsmoking Mary McCormack - a quite brilliant New York actress - these ugly events are rivetingly recounted as if absolutely inevitable and completely justifiable.

The second, even more horrible, monologue, entitled Iphigenia in Orem, has a businessman recounting how he came to kill, or at least not prevent the death of, his baby daughter, for purely career reasons. This play, performed by the stunning Zeljko Ivanek, has the spontaneous, unprepared quality of Mamet dialogue, which the actor seems to be making up as he goes along.

The longest play, A Gaggle of Saints, follows after an interval, and this time has two characters, childhood sweethearts who tell the story of an ill-fated weekend they spent in New York, from their own points of view. The husband's version (performed by Matthew Lillard, a compelling actor best known for his screen appearance as one of the serial killers in the film Scream) contains a dark and unpleasant secret that his wife (McCormack, now glowing and beautiful in evening dress) is blissfully unaware of.

George Bernard Shaw divided his work into Plays Pleasant and Plays Unpleasant. These in Bash would all most certainly belong to the latter category. But as so baldly but effectively staged here by Joe Mantello, recreating a production he first directed Off-Broadway last summer, they make for a gruesomely watchable evening.

Mark Shenton