Reviewing Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance at the Guthrie, I wrote that I had “come to understand why some of our most harrowing, essential conversations are soaked in a boozy haze.” Playwright Neil LaBute understands that as well—which is why, in Some Girl(s), he doesn’t allow his characters the luxury of being drunk. Facing each other in a brightly-lit hotel room, they chug Evian in a manner that makes it clear they desperately wish it was something stronger.
LaBute is famous for putting his characters in wrenchingly difficult situations; his oeuvre is like a version of the Saw series where the tortuous devices are emotional rather than physical, and Some Girl(s) may be his cleverest, most wicked device yet. The newly engaged, never named, central character (Clarence Wethern) arranges meetings with four of his past girlfriends, apparently seeking to apologize for wrongdoings and make his peace before moving on. In LaBute’s world, though, a past hurt can’t be undone—it can only be excavated and refreshed. Bobbi (Jennifer J. Phillips), the last woman to appear, puts it baldly: “People get hurt. Injured. A bit of them, some piece…it dies. They lose something that will never come back. Not ever.”
People who have seen other LaBute plays may relish the fact that in Some Girl(s), the brutally hurtful character (in a LaBute play, there always is one) essentially gets told off for the show’s entire duration; one after another, the four women appear onstage to tell the man that no, it’s not okay and he can’t make it better and and that there really is no hope for him as a human being. Whether or not emotional violence can be likened to the violence of genocide (Bobbi insists it can), the fact is that the man has hurt a lot of women very badly, and that’s something he’s going to have to live with. Can he? As my dad says, “you get three guesses, and two don’t count.”
|some girl(s), playing through december 5 at pillsbury house theatre. for tickets ($15-$18) and information, see walkingshadowcompany.org.|
The ensemble of actors onstage at the Pillsbury House Theatre in Walking Shadow’s searing production are as collectively compelling as any cast I’ve seen this year, in anything. Though the premise and underlying theme of each of the four encounters is the same, the details are different, and each of the four actresses who appear opposite Wethern makes an indelible mark. Mo Perry appears first, as the man’s teenage love who is forced to admit that she’s always harbored a fantasy of the two reuniting. “Every time I’ve reviewed Mo Perry in a production,” wrote Matthew A. Everett earlier this year, “she’s been one of the best things in it. Often she’s surrounded by equally talented actors, but I never find myself saying, ‘Hmmm. Mo could have been better.'” Nor do I. Phillips, in the climactic final encounter, is moving as the warmest of the four, the one least afraid to show the man what he’s done to her.
Even stronger, though, are the two actresses who appear in the play’s central section. Jean Salo, who comes third as a married woman with whom the man had a destructive affair, snarls at the man with a nearly unremitting intensity that put me in mind of Steve Epp’s Jacob Marley come back from the grave in the Guthrie’s Christmas Carol to tell Ebenezer Scrooge just what kind of man he is. In my review of that production, I noted that Epp is so forceful that he actually adds depth by proxy to Scrooge’s character, and the same effect occurs here: although Wethern plays innocent, we appreciate that he must have done something pretty terrible to provoke that reaction in Salo.
Anna Sundberg, who appears second, plays the most complex character in the production—in part due to LaBute’s writing, but mostly due to Sundberg’s subtly layered performance. Sundberg’s character Tyler poses as a woman without boundaries, a wild child who’s come to terms with her unstable nature and challenges Wethern to be equally honest with himself. Still, LaBute allows Tyler to admit to having been at least a little wounded by her ex-boyfriend’s behavior, and Sundberg finds still deeper levels of hurt. Watch Sundberg’s reactions as Wethern speaks: you can see the desperate confusion beneath her character’s cocksure bravado.
Wethern could have played his character as a slick asshole, but under the wise direction of Brian Balcom, he doesn’t: he comes across as a nice guy who just can’t quite figure out how he keeps managing to hurt people so badly. That, LaBute seems to be suggesting, is precisely what makes him so dangerous: when he promises a woman he’ll love her forever, he actually believes it—or at least he wants to.
It would be fair to criticize LaBute for being the Noam Chomsky of the emotional landscape: the strong will keep hurting the weak, he argues, because it’s simply their nature to do so. It’s a terribly bleak world view, and it’s hard to understand what could drive a playwright to keep obsessively returning to that theme. Still, LaBute’s best work—and Some Girl(s) is surely the best of his plays with which I’m familiar—resonates because everyone’s been hurt, everyone’s hurt someone else, and no one can really be positive that it won’t happen again. In the hands of Balcom and his cast, LaBute’s play is appropriately chilly but also heartbreakingly human. It’s an exceptionally powerful show.