Review: “In a Dark Dark House”

March 25, 2009
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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.

Your thoughts?
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  • Lou,

    Thanks for coming to see the show and taking the time to write your response and review. We appreciate everything you do for the Arts community here in Indy.

    I hope that as others come see the show, they will come back here and share their thoughts as well. It is a discussion provoking show!

    There are only 4 performances left: March 27, 28, April 3 and 4 @ 8 pm.
    More information at the website: www.heartlandactors.com/darkhouse

    Thanks,
    Ben Tebbe
    Company Manager, HART
  • Full disclosure I'm the President of the HART Board of Directors.

    I'm also an extremely demanding theatregoer who is unaccustomed to handing out unreserved praise. I have plenty to offer for this production.

    Starting with the selection of one of the best contemporary American playwrights - my personal favorite, at any rate - is always a smart choice, and this script is a doozy. LaBute writes plays like horror stories of the soul, with characters walking around in emotional masks, slashing each other's lives to pieces . . . often without really wanting to; they're just too weak to stop themselves. It's a white-knuckle ride waiting for the monsters around every verbal corner, too. Nobody paints more complete and gripping (and darkly funny) portraits of human frailty, except perhaps LaBute's contemporary in the film world, P.T. Anderson.

    The performances of the trio of fearless actors on display here bring this script to full fruit, too. The performers leap into LaBute’s twists and turns and extreme verbal complexity, and own them from beginning to end. (Yes, I said verbal complexity. If you've read LaBute's scripts you know about the dreaded slashes . . . he's another in the line of playwrights who achieves natural-sounding speech through a great deal of artifice.)

    As a case in point, I noticed Terry, through Ryan Artzberger's performance, studiously avoiding saying the names of certian pop culture icons, TV shows, and the like, not because he doesn't know them, but because he doesn't want to seem like the kind of guy who cares about those things. They're all throw-away lines, but they help add up to a character and Ryan is smartly attentive to that. Then there's Rebecca Masur, whose Jennifer has an awareness of her flowering sex appeal that's well out ahead of her sixteen years of life experience - and yet not in the trite way that we've become accustomed to seeing such characters. She could easily have taken that road, but she doesn't. Matt Roland somehow conveys that Drew cultivates a slick, Devil-may-care image in everyday life, even though we see him only in the context of his conversations with Terry, around whom he can't help but be squirrely and nervous.

    It's a sign of the quality of this show that I can talk about the performances in such detail -- there's that much and more to be had. There's also a story that's full of enough surprises that I'll avoid commenting on it at all, to let you see the whole plot play out. The production values are absurdly good for a still-in-development space like the Fringe theatre.

    Just get there. You won't soon forget it. There are two more chances this weekend.

    Brian G. Hartz

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