Neil LaBute became famous as a brutalizer of psyches, his characters' and ours. His early plays, in the late 1990s, were all about the evils humans visit upon one another without provocation. They were studies in venality and cruelty, and it was hard to watch them without thinking that LaBute believed we really are cruel and venal, ever willing to hurt one another for a little pleasure.
Things began changing sometime in 2005, which brought us the world premieres of both the vicious Fat Pig (in which a man dumps the love of his life because of her weight problem) and the beautiful Wrecks (in which the protagonist marries his own mother), which for the first time invited us to feel something tender for a LaBute protagonist, no matter how twisted he might be. (By the end of the play, it's impossible to find anything but sweetness in the protagonist's transgressions against our most universal moral imperative.)
In a Dark Dark House — which premiered in 1997 and is now enjoying its southeastern premiere at Plantation's Mosaic Theatre — has aspirations similar to those of Wrecks, but its execution is more complex. House features not one but three wretched, damaged people: two grown brothers and the 16-year-old daughter of the man who may have sexually abused them as children. All three will make you squirm, and all three will inspire your dislike. But ultimately — or hopefully — all three will win, if not your affection, then at least your compassion.
In a Dark Dark House opens in the yard of a psychiatric hospital, where the wealthy, shallow Drew (Ricky Waugh) has come to deal with drug and booze issues. His brother, Terry (Terry Hardcastle), soon arrives, and Drew goes all to pieces. His lips tremble, his eyes water, and his words are pitched in the tippity-top of Waugh's register, which makes him sound like a desperately unhappy child. He has a favor to ask: Could Terry please corroborate the story Drew shared with his doctors at the hospital, in which Drew was sexually abused by a young drifter who'd befriended Terry one summer in their childhood?
Terry will, and does. And he is angry. This is the first he's heard of the abuse — he thought he had warned the young Drew to stay away from this character. He seeks out the now-middle-aged man, whose name is Tim and who owns a series of small businesses. One of those businesses is a mini-golf course. When he goes there, Terry meets Tim's daughter.
The vibe until this point has been strange and strained: Drew and Terry interact with the familiarity and fraternal antagonism of brothers, but they share no affection. Their intimacy is a grim thing. You may think this is because Drew is a fuckup — a drunken, incarcerated fuckup — and that's OK: You should think what you will. That doesn't make it true. Because what seems straightforward at the beginning — that Drew is the fuckup and that Terry is fine, if a little weird — becomes unglued the moment we encounter this daughter, Jennifer (Miriam Wiener), fiddling with the plumbing of a mini-golf hole with her petite, be-denimed ass sticking up in the air.
Her bum bespeaks a womanliness to which her adolescent mind can only pretend, and Miriam takes her character's naivete to scary places. She's not merely pretending to awkwardness — this is not the shoe-scuffing adolescent of most plays. This is the real deal, a girl putting on what she thinks are charming airs in the presence of a handsome older man, thinking she's getting away with it, and failing to a degree that she'll probably only understand seven or eight years hence. Wiener's job here is to make you squirm — if, that is, Drew's howling about getting molested in his childhood tree house hadn't done it already — and thanks to nigh-supernaturally sensitive direction from Richard Jay Simon, squirm you will. Real adolescence isn't charming. It is grating to the ears and painful to witness. And when an adolescent is violated, as you will quickly become convinced Jennifer is about to be, it triggers some deep-seated, herd-protecting impulse that makes it difficult not to rush the stage and throttle Terry Hardcastle until he turns blue and dies.
Hideous things happen. Hideous truths are revealed. Hideous betrayals occur amid the moist greens and bone-white statuary of Sean McLelland's romantically dilapidated set. There is an ending, but it is not a happy one, and none of the characters' prospects are particularly cheery. And even Terry's anger at the man who allegedly molested his younger brother is shown to be less-than-noble.
But it's a hopeful play, still — at least in terms of its writer's future. Where once he wrote stories of monsters who seemed to elect monstrosity over some civilized alternative, these sorry creatures can't help it. They're victims of their anger, or their perceived helplessness, or their unavoidable inexperience. When Terry says, near the end of the play, that "children are the most important things in the world," it is both frightening — because of his interlude with young Jennifer — and irreducibly true. He has to mean it, because all around him lays the ruins of a world in which children were treated cavalierly.
In a Dark Dark House is a difficult play to watch, for the reasons listed above and because of a dozen revelations that I mustn't divulge. But it is not capricious. Its characters are a long way from good and an even longer way from being saved. But you get the sense that they're worth saving. For the man who wrote Fat Pig and for the audience that laughed at it, it's a good start.