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Review: “In a Dark Dark House”

March 25, 2009
Neil LaBute is know outside theater circles for writing and directing the lightning-rod film “In the Company of Men,” which he produced while teaching in Fort Wayne. A long string of writing and directing gigs followed, leading to, this month, the April 2 opening of his first Broadway play, “Reasons to be Pretty.”

He specializes in human weakness. Of bluster masking frailty. Of men behaving badly.

In the last two years, I’ve seen three of his plays at three different Indianapolis theaters—remarkable, really, for a new-ish writer. Each time, I was caught up in the intensity, the awkwardness, and the humanity of LaBute’s characters. Each time, I was on edge waiting for the cracks that I knew would reveal themselves and be wedged open. Each time, I was impacted what I had seen.

And each time, I could feel the playwright’s puppeteering.

The latest local production of his work—Heartland Actors' Repertory Theatre’s “In a Dark Dark House”—is as well produced a drama as you are likely to see any time soon on local stages. Through effective design and direction, the seat-of-its-pants Indy Fringe building transforms into a legit theater space with the intense duo of Ryan Artzberger and Matthew Roland in the leads. Both are as committed to the silences as to the words, as compelling in their reactions as they are in their actions.

They play brothers, one a Gulf War vet with anger issues, the other a shifty lawyer in rehab after crashing his car. The patient needs estranged big bro to corroborate to doctors the story of their troubled youth. And as the realities of their childhoods emerge through their conversations and confrontations, LaBute prods the audience to keep jumping to the wrong conclusions.

A third character (whose age I didn't quite buy) is brought into the second scene, complicating matters further. I’ll avoid sharing too much, because the brutal pleasures of LaBute have a lot to do with not knowing where things are going. Once all secrets are revealed, I’d imagine the play looks very different and I wouldn’t be surprised if some return to this show (tickets are $20, with half the proceeds going to Prevent Child Abuse Indiana) for a second look.

Would I have preferred a less crafted final moment—one that grew organically from the situations and characters rather than feeling crafted by the playwright (and magnified by some rare awkward staging)? Did I wish the characters—rather than the playwright—seemed to be making their choices? 

Absolutely. But that doesn’t diminish by much my enthusiasm for what’s on stage at the Fringe building through April 4. We get too few chances here to see work that provokes lengthy post-show parking lot discussions. Mine lasted long into the dark dark night.

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