Going to a wake and sequestering yourself with a grief-stricken husband for 75 minutes in the presence of his beloved wife's corpse. Listening and saying nothing, even though the husband is plainly in no condition to be speaking with anybody, least of all a stranger. Hearing ickily personal details of every aspect of his marriage.
This isn't how I ordinarily envision spending my Friday nights, and I bet the same goes for you. It is, however, precisely what Mosaic is asking of us with Neil LaBute's Wrecks, a one-man show that is maybe the least fun play I've ever seen. It is a painful, ugly, almost incoherent attempt to communicate situations and states of being that hardly anybody tries putting on a stage with any fidelity simply because they're not fun to see.
As widower Edward Carr, Gordon McConnell looks cool in his fitted suit, dark glasses and blank stare, like a 50-something James Dean, respectable but still dangerous. His face is a mask of passivity, and, this being a LaBute joint, you figure that he probably killed his wife or that he's about to fuck her corpse. People go to LaBute shows expecting dramatic revelations of humanity's darkest and most venal natures, and one may be moved to discount everything Carr says in happy anticipation of finding out what awful little demon LaBute has stowed in his closet. You may be waiting for a reason to hate him.
Wrecks. Written by Neil LaBute. Directed by Richard Jay Simon. With Gordon McConnell.Presented through June 29 at the Mosaic Theatre, American Heritage Center for the Arts, 12200 W. Broward Blvd., Ste. 3121, Plantation. Call 954-577-8243, or visit www.mosaictheatre.com.
If you do, though, the play won't work — it'll begin falling apart the moment you realize how unslick this Edward Carr really is. He's too heartsick to be stagy or even watchable. Sticking a man like Carr in front of an audience is almost inexcusably pornographic, in the worst and most human way. His grief isn't explosive; he never has to blow his nose or mop the tears from his cheek. Instead, he holds forth. He can spend five or ten minutes distractedly jabbering about Shirley Temple's miserable childhood or the fucked-upedness of modern sexual mores before realizing he's strayed from whatever point he was trying to make and then, embarrassed, trying to apologize. Alas, his heart's not in that either, and sometimes even he doesn't seem to know what he's talking about. His mind's almost gone. He was with his wife for 30 years.
Carr's stories — growing up as a foster kid, meeting his wife, building an auto-rental company — turn into other stories or else trail into silence when Carr realizes that he's boring himself (and us). Standing in the middle of a cold marble mausoleum, beside strange Egyptian crests of Anubis and a sphinx, McConnell's Carr spends most of his 75 minutes saying a whole lot of not much, and you feel bad for the guy even while wishing you were almost anywhere else but the Mosaic Theatre. All you know is that this guy loved his wife a great deal, and now she's dead. You sympathize. You might also say: So what?
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Then comes the LaButian twist, the sudden revelation that changes the whole context of Carr's marriage. It's even less fun than before: an admission of a gruesome crime that implicates both Carr and his wife. I can't tell you what it is, but I can tell you it is arguably grosser than the moment when LaBute's protagonist groped an 11-year-old in Some Girls and more upsetting than when his leads tried destroying a deaf girl in In the Company of Men. When Wrecks premiered two years ago, plenty of people found LaBute's nasty surprise gratuitous — or even worse, they found it pat; a typical LaButian flourish to close a not-at-all enjoyable spectacle.
I disagree, simply because of how much Edward Carr loved his wife and because without committing his crime, he could never have loved her as he did. Wrecks is a big step if not toward the light then at least a semi-turn away from the darkness that has been LaBute's single-minded muse for so long. It's a turn that has only continued in the past two years, most notably with Reasons to Be Pretty, and no playwright has ever needed a moral adjustment so badly. For a long time, LaBute couldn't help but posit humanity as a craven, self-centered species whose members had no utility except in dishing out punishments to one another in a circle of endless flogging. The man pictured in Wrecks is not of that order, nor is the woman he loved. Yes, he has done something foul, something that would make him an outcast from all the human community if it were ever revealed. It's just that, in this instance, LaBute has made it clear that neither Carr nor his wife wanted it that way.
For once, LaBute doesn't give us someone to blame. In the moment of performance, the twist that makes up Wrecks' denouement is more heartbreaking than shocking because it makes moral judgments difficult while still demanding them; it asks its audience to make a choice, and it makes the choosing hurt. To feel good for these people and the life they built is to pardon a sin that is unpardonable by any standard. But to condemn them — to be disgusted by them — you must discount the human grief that has been paraded in front of you as a manifestation of sin, corruption, and a filthy spirit, and you must also cop to having wasted a night at the theater.
If you can find it in yourself to not be disgusted, though, and to see in Edward Carr the innocence that I believe LaBute meant to put there, then you'll know you've been put in touch with your very best angels: the ones who aren't afraid to crawl through shit on their way to grace. These are difficult angels to hear, and I count us all lucky that LaBute has finally heard their voices, no matter how long it took.