In the space of just eight nights, London has had two consecutive openings of new plays by the American playwright and filmmaker Neil LaBute, but a little LaBute is starting to go a long way. After last week’s opening of Some Girls at the Gielgud, the Donmar are now presenting This is How it Goes, a new staging of a play that was originally premiered at Off-Broadway’s Public Theatre in March; the prolific playwright has also had a third new play open in New York in the last six months called Fat Pig. The trouble is not so much a case of having too much of a good thing but instead nagging doubts are arising as to whether the thing is good at all.
All is never what it seems on the surface in a LaBute play, and as he starts to excavate beneath it, you can be sure of one thing only: that just as his characters constantly dupe and delude each other and themselves, another no less sinister game is being played out on the audience, too, who are being set up only to be wrong-footed. But the inevitable springing of a surprise twist is beginning to feel formulaic, even tiresome; and sure enough, there’s one here. And even if you’re unfamiliar with LaBute’s method, he issues a warning early on to those alert enough to catch it: his ubiquitous lead character called simply ‘Man’ (as he was in Some Girls, too) tells us in his opening speech, “I think I might end up being an unreliable narrator…”
LaBute may be poking fun at himself; but his play is also irritatingly self-referential about the art of theatre itself, like a Pirandello comedy, with jokey asides at how clever he’s being: at one point, even Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf gets referenced.
But if the form he is using is now its own dramatic cliché, the content is still provocative and bracing. Three high-school classmates are reunited 12 years later; two of them are now unhappily married to each other, and the arrival of the man – our narrator who is an ex-lawyer and is now trying to forge a career as a writer – precipitates a round of uneasy social collisions. The twist is that the husband is a former high school jock who was the only black kid for around 100 miles or so; and the fact of his colour looms large throughout the play. It adds another deliberately uncomfortable dimension to LaBute’s typically dyspeptic dissection of contemporary relationships.
In the battleground of sex and race that follows, LaBute isn’t afraid to let his characters air some pretty rancid thoughts, both permitted by the game-playing that’s taking place but in fact ultimately undermined by it, since so little of it is to be believed. But in Moises Kaufman’s arrestingly played production, the three extremely attractive actors bring a moment-to-moment conviction to what they’re doing that is persuasive even when you know it’ll be undermined a minute or a scene later. Ben Chaplin’s narrator has a restless, conflicted charm – his self-awareness no salve to the bad conscience of what he is taking part in; while Megan Dodds – a picture of vulnerability as the wife – and Idris Elba, all brooding menace as the husband, offer their own finely etched portraits of a marriage on the rocks.