How Nice of Denzel to Join Us! But This Brutus Is a Bust

I must say that I’ve never appreciated movie stars who treat theater as a form of charity work. They sacrifice too much for me.

“So why knock yourself out?” The Times asked Denzel Washington about his role as Brutus in Julius Caesar on Broadway. “It’s obviously not for the money.”

“It’s like a long love letter to the people who supported me,” the star explained modestly about his first appearance onstage in l5 years-since his Richard III in Shakespeare in the Park was poorly received. Still, why not have another bash at the Bard, if that’s what Denzel wants to do? And who could possibly resent his gracious love letter and Shakespearean gift to us?

Oh, I don’t know. It’s all a bit too giving and virtuous for me. It’s all too Hollywood for this sourpuss. “Every once in a while I’ll get a plate of pasta at Cipriani,” Denzel told The Times. Otherwise, it’s all work, work, work. He pointed out proudly that he’d dedicated himself to spending a whole month in Los Angeles working with the dramaturge of Julius Caesar on the Shakespeare text.

“I took a bungalow at the Chateau Marmont,” the star went on, “a funky little 60’s kind of thing, and everyday I worked for about eight hours, three or four with him, three or four on my own, six days a week for the month of January.”

An entire month! On Shakespeare!

How about a year? How about a lifetime?

But it wouldn’t have mattered a damn what I felt about well-meaning, delusional Hollywood stars deigning to appear on Broadway had the Caesar, and Denzel Washington’s Brutus, been up to snuff.

I’m afraid the production itself, directed by the distinguished Daniel Sullivan, is a shambles. For all his experience, Mr. Sullivan has no record of directing Shakespeare-not within long memory, anyway. He’s at sea.

Caesar is the play some of us associate with school days: “Brutus-noble hero or plotting villain? Discuss in no more than 300 words. Use pencil only.” But Mr. Sullivan has somehow managed to stage the equivalent of a school production on Broadway, smoke bombs and all.

Set in a ruined Rome-or contemporary Beirut-for some vaguely apocalyptic, “relevant” reason, this is yet another modern-dress Caesar. Denzel Washington’s Brutus is therefore suited like a high-level bureaucrat with bling in his ear. Except when he’s wearing full battle camouflage during the war scenes. A mistake: Never camouflage your star.

The sight of actors running to and fro, or hither and thither, pretending to be riot police is a sight to behold. Also, Caesar’s bare bum. With the notable exception of Colm Feore’s fine Cassius, the ensemble acts in many different styles, mostly from hysterical to campy to hysterical. They possess little or no experience as Shakespearean actors. Transformed into an angry mob for the great, competing Brutus/Antony speeches, the actors come out into the audience as if we too were the mob weighing mighty decisions about the future of Rome. “Yeah!” an improvising actor standing near me cried out to Mark Antony, who was emoting tearfully over the body of Caesar. “Right!”

What the hey. After all, this is a production that has the assassination of Caesar take place in a heavily guarded bunker with a metal detector. How they manage to get the murderous knives through the metal detector in the first place-and why Caesar’s guards with the M-16’s don’t just blow them all away-cannot be revealed here. It would spoil the tension.

The two central speeches from Brutus and Mark Antony, which ought to reveal the unholy art of political expediency, are in any case generalized and botched. Julius Caesar has been reduced to a simplistic one-note reading without ambiguity, nuance or political sophistication. Mr. Washington possesses undeniable stage presence, but his innate stature diminishes as the evening wears on until he gets lost in the blood-soaked crowd. There’s no excitement in him, no enlargement of his character or dangerous, mesmerizing involvement.

He’s either too blatantly histrionic or too passively smooth. He reacts to news of his wife’s death as if she’ll be a little late for dinner. His verse-speaking is assured-that month-long slog at the Chateau Marmont has paid a few dividends-but crucially his noble Brutus is never at war with himself. Shakespeare’s Brutus is a fatally troubled intellectual. Mr. Washington’s is merely a man of good intentions gone wrong.

Maybe, Maybe Not

While I’m uncharitably not in the giving mood, I think Neil LaBute should pause and stop writing for a while-including writing flattering e-mails to me. “But when I tell him he hates flatterers, he says he does, being then most flattered …, ” as the line goes in Julius Caesar.

Time to take stock. Mr. LaBute, the dramatist of relished nastiness, is giving the impression of late that he’s rattling off a new play just about every other week. It isn’t the rattling that concerns me so much as the slackening. All plays are made up by the dramatist as he goes along. But Mr. LaBute is letting it show far too much.

This Is How It Goes, directed by George C. Wolfe at the Public, concerns a racist who’s named “Man.” It is never a good idea to name anyone “Man,” although it happens a lot in ballet. Sad, philosophical whiteface clown symbolically named “Man,” or “Homme,” dances with “Woman” and others-much food for thought about “Life” ensues.

Mr. LaBute’s “Man,” the middle-class bigot, is an ex-lawyer who wants to be a writer, and he’s played confidently by “Mr. Comedy” himself, Ben Stiller. I might have known. Ecce Homo. Mankind is Ben Stiller.

Anyway, our hero, “Man,” functions as the narrator of a story he appears in, but the story might not even be true. “Geez,” he announces coyly at the start. “I think I might end up being an unreliable narrator.”

An unreliable story therefore unfolds. “Man” seems to have the hots for his old high-school friend, Belinda (Amanda Peet), who’s now married to a wealthy and touchy black businessman, Cody (the always excellent Jeffrey Wright). There’s a scene introduced by “Man”-“So this is how it goes”-that ends with Cody beating up his lovely white wife.

“Whoa!” says “Man,” suddenly entering the action. “Geez, that was a bit much! All right, so maybe it wasn’t exactly like that. I dunno. Hey, look, I’m a writer-would-be writer-so what can I tell ya? It could’ve happened that way!”

What can I tell ya? Mr. LaBute’s latest play is a lazy, sputtering tease. It has no muscle or tension beyond a certain curiosity about how far the manipulative, racist “Man” will go. (Not too far, it turns out.) Obviously intended to shock and disturb us, everyone-including the very few African-Americans at the performance I attended-remained unprovoked. Put simply, “Man” isn’t worth the trouble. He’s a jerk.

This Is How It Goes is also meant to be some kind of investigation into perception. But the outcome is hollow because the formula is dishonest. (Essential information withheld, storyteller unreliable, “truth” obviously rigged.) At one ludicrous point, we were asked to accept that “Man” is being bribed by the powerful Cody to seduce his beautiful wife so he can look good during the divorce. Or that the bundle of cash in his back pocket is really payment for a baseball card. Or that it’s the deposit for his rental at Cody’s place. Or ….

“Hey, that stuff’s for you to decide,” says “Man,” who talks like a 12-year-old. “Can’t help you out with everything, wouldn’t be any fun!”

Fun? Now there’s a thought. But here I must come clean and explain that I’ve been having a little fun of my own.

You see, I loved every minute of This Is How It Goes. Hey! Whatever. Shoulda told you at the start. Sorry about that. Crazy! But, umm, you know how unreliable drama critics are. Trust me! I really, really love Ben Stiller. Love his “Man.” Interesting concept. Love Denzel, too. Hey, who wouldn’t? And, ya know, scratch under the surface of “Man” and you’ll find another “Man.” Bet I fooled ya when I said I didn’t want Mr. LaBute writing me flattering e-mails any more. Just goading! Like nobody wants to be flattered. Bet it kinda shocked ya! Whoa! Full disclosure coming up.

I am Neil LaBute’s cousin.

Back up, guys! We were pretty close at school. Unless we weren’t. He was thin, I think. Restless, strange little guy. Poor at sports. Room for improvement-know what I mean? Always scribbling thoughts in a notebook, though. Took a peek one time. He’d written, “Cannibalism sounds interesting.” We kissed a coupla times. Big cuddler, ya know? Whoa! Incest. Hey! Just kidding! That’s stuff for you to decide. Truly. I can only do so much. About plays. Really. In the end, you gotta make up your own mind about what works for you. Kinda.