Studio Theatre Stages Controversial Playwright’s Take on Race Relations
The Studio Theatre has a crush on American playwright Neil LaBute, and with its latest LaBute offering, “This Is How It Goes,” it’s easy to see why. LaBute, the Midwesterner who gave us “In the Company of Men” and “Fat Pig” (which had a successful run at the Studio last year), skillfully captures the contradictions and cruelties that permeate modern American life.
In his new play, LaBute gives us an extended riff on reunion, race and manipulation using his familiar tactic of fooling us first and then bringing us in on the dark “joke” as we wait warily for the punch line. “This Is How It Goes” should resonate with a multiracial Washington audience familiar with the ways in which race, power and social status both coexist and collide in the nation’s capital.
“This Is How It Goes” opens with fresh-face actor Eric Feldman, billed only as “Man,” talking to the audience as he stands outside a Sears store in Anywhere, USA. A former lawyer who’s moved back to town to become a writer, Man is trying to muster the courage to say hello to a pretty blonde from high school who’s perched on a bench nearby.
As he simultaneously collects his nerve and prepares us for the triangle of deception ahead, Feldman warns that his own recollection of the events he’s about to reveal might be shifty. “I might end up being an unreliable narrator,” the self-professed former “fat kid” says. “Decide for yourselves how much is real.”
That suggestion hovers over the remainder of the play as the ingratiating white Man gradually becomes less and less trustworthy and more and more loathsome. He’s the guy we all know in Washington—the high school dork whose innate intelligence eventually helps him overcome his social awkwardness, although he still can’t resist the nerd’s urge to let you know just how smart he is. He also can’t seem to resist the occasional racial slur or joke, although he’s quick to note that it’s all “just a joke.”
The blonde Belinda—played convincingly by the very alluring Anne Bowles—doesn’t really remember her former classmate at first, but they begin to chat and eventually decide they’d like to “run into each other” again. But Bowles reveals that she has since married “Cody Phipps,” a former star athlete turned successful small-time businessman.
“Cody Phipps!” an incredulous Feldman repeats over and over as he struggles to reconcile the notion of this nice, white, former high school cheerleader betrothed to Cody, a handsome and supremely cocky black man who was never—and still isn’t—a “nice guy.”
As it turns out, Belinda and Cody own a home with a garage apartment and they need a tenant. She suggests they all meet at a local restaurant to discuss the arrangement.
Actor Benton Greene, who portrays Cody, is all sinew and muscle—an articulate, commanding presence who imbues his character with a tightly coiled sense of menace. He’s got a chip the size of the Washington Monument on his shoulder, but he’s managed to mitigate the weight by making loads of cash and marrying the hottest white woman in town, even if he’s generally so angry that he calls her a “pig” and isn’t above smacking her around on occasion.
Cody’s self-assured explanations of why he is who he is serve to help us understand his character, and some of his profane rants are the funniest moments in the play. Likewise, Greene’s facial expressions are priceless and convey his scorn for Belinda and Man—mere mortals, after all—better than his sharpest words.
“This Is How It Goes” doesn’t offer a particularly compelling storyline, but the crackling dialogue, shifting scenery and light directorial touch sustain the audience’s attention as we try to figure out who’s really perpetrating what to whom.
LaBute peppers his script with literary and film references, including Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train,” Shakespeare’s “Othello” and Thomas Hardy’s “The Mayor of Casterbridge.” It’s usually Man making the references, and although the comparative context they provide is helpful, they only serve to remind the audience of the relative paucity of this screenplay’s intellectual heft.
The play’s ending, though tidy, is mildly disappointing and a bit unrealistic. It’s a happy ending, at least according to LaBute’s dark vision of the concept. Peace comes only after everything that was established falls apart.
This Is How It Goes through Feb. 11 Studio Theatre 1501 14th St., NW Tickets are to . For more information, please call (202) 332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.