If Bash Is a Contact Sport, Where’s the Blood?

Neil LaBute’s inarticulate, sick characters couldn’t be more fashionable, particularly when one of them–a white-trash child murderer–is played by America’s sweetheart, Calista Flockhart (who’s excellent, by the way).

The sicker, the better. After all, murder is no longer enough for Hannibal Lecter, and a little cannibalism never did a good psychopath any harm. So in Mr. LaBute’s three monologues of haphazard evil, Bash: Latter-Day Plays , the relish for the kill is gloated over like a greedy child’s every lick of a double-chocolate Dove bar.

Mr. LaBute–whose films In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors also dwell on brutal actions played out without feeling or moral consequence–is seen, at 38, as a new-generation David Mamet. Mr. Mamet (a hero of Mr. LaBute’s) has a lot to answer for: He spawns imitators as prolifically as Stephen Sondheim. Hence a theatrical legacy of dark musicals and dramas of provocative, violent inarticulateness.

Mr. LaBute is also Mametian in his desire to rouse us out of our everyday lethargy, seeing theater as “a contact sport,” as he told The New Yorker . Would that Bash , which ends its sold-out limited run at the Douglas Fairbanks Theater on July 24, had genuinely created the kind of uproar and offense the dramatist would like. To the contrary, the audience at the performance I attended was nice and quiet (and docile, it seemed). Only one person–a lady in her 30’s–walked out, slamming the door behind her in protest. Good for her! The rest of us stayed, dutifully in my case, listening to three monologues told by a child-murderer (the pretentiously entitled “Medea Redux”), a baby-killer (the pretentiously entitled “Iphigenia in Orem”), and a vile gay-basher in a Central Park lavatory (“A Gaggle of Saints: A Remembrance of Hatred and Longing”–a reference to Latter-day Saints; Mr. LaBute is a Mormon).

He is no Euripides. His Mormonism is obviously sincere. (His wife, a therapist, is also a Mormon.) Mr. LaBute believes in sin, or greatly struggles with it. Goodness–call it a moral compass–is absent from his work, present but unseen. Yet it is undeniably odd that all the murderers in Bash are Mormons, as if the dramatist were committing a willful act of sacrilege. Either that, or it’s the outcome of pathological confusion.

It’s peculiar, too, that I couldn’t make much of an emotional connection to any of Mr. LaBute’s characters on stage. We’re clearly meant to connect, if only to see the worst of ourselves in them. As the cliché goes, they might be sickos, but they’re human beings. But are they interesting? Disaffection in itself doesn’t make people interesting.

Mr. LaBute is a cold writer in the sense that he holds up his perverse lost souls like clinical specimens to be examined in a jar. One pictures him in rubber gloves, handling with care. But not only did I feel little or nothing for his characters, the same was true for their victims. And shouldn’t I–we–have felt something for the fate of the murdered 14-year-old son, the baby and the homosexual, who had been brutalized and sacrificed?

No, the most disturbing response to Bash is our eerie neutrality or indifference. The play isn’t “a contact sport,” but a spectator sport smacking of prurience. However, Mr. LaBute’s graphic word-pictures are tame compared to the gruesomely violent reality of movies. They also strive too self-consciously for poetry: the poetry of the banal. But the frightening response to Bash is that it fails to frighten at all, or even surprise. We are immune to its shock value not because we have seen it all before. Rather, because Mr. LaBute’s Bash belongs to the confessional syndrome that normalizes violence and makes entertainment out of ignorance.

All three monologues are confessionals. Personally, I’ve never met a monologue I really liked. Our motto could be: Don’t tell me, show me. I prefer drama to offstage drama, the play to the monologue (with its accompanying desk or chair, and glass of water). Let the whole world not be Spalding Gray! The Bash monologues are part of the Zeitgeist– The Weir and The Lime Tree Bower , David Hare’s Via Dolorosa , and more monologues to come, from Tony Kushner and Martin Sherman (of Bent ).

But my caveats about the talking heads of theater were more than compensated by the confident naturalism of Bash ‘s brilliant cast. The director Joe Mantello brought out the best in Calista Flockhart, Ron Eldard and Paul Rudd. Ms. Flockhart–whose roots are honorably in Off-Broadway theater–plays a young woman who was seduced by her junior high school teacher when she was 13. The actress is seated behind a desk speaking into a tape recorder in a police station. “You know, for being such a big guy, he was real gentle to me …”

Pregnant, she’s abandoned by the teacher, who skips town. Biographical detail is no concern of Mr. LaBute’s slender narrative. “I gave birth and a bunch of years pass, O.K.?” The father marries; he loves children, she tells us, but is childless. They correspond. Mr. LaBute takes no chances with his message: “He’d beaten fate,” the woman announces, “and he’d gotten away with it.” Or when she cries theatrically (and out of character): “The world is out of balance!”

Then, when her son is 14, she takes him to meet the father in a motel. When he leaves, she kills the boy in his bath. She imagines the father screaming in sorrow. (Ms. Flockhart screams pretty good.) And the woman concludes, not with a bang, but a shrug: “There’s not an answer, there never is.”

The second monologue is spoken as if to an unseen, extremely silent listener in a hotel room. That’s us, just the same! The piece concerns a boring businessman who confesses to helping his infant daughter asphyxiate in the marital bed. “Me and Deb could never sleep with blankets on the bed after that night. Sounds odd …”

But as the fellow glibly explains, “Life goes on.” “Like I told you before, you just go on.” Informed he was about to be downsized by his corporation, the man killed his daughter to get sympathy. It worked: He kept his job. But it turns out he was never going to be fired in the first place. It was all a practical joke by his friend, you see. That’s some unbelievable joke. But hey! Life goes on.

And in the last piece, a Mormon college student and his cronies beat a middle-aged homosexual to death in the Central Park toilet while his fiancée snoozes at the Plaza. “This is, like, almost surreal!” The least surprising part of the story is the implication that the macho young man is a closet gay.

Mr. LaBute dwells in prurient detail on each murder, as if relishing it in slow-motion. He laps it up, as I suggest. Yet The New York Times finds in the piece a “probing moralism as fierce as that of Nathaniel Hawthorne.” If that were the case, we would emerge shaking from the theater, rather than coolly indifferent or uninvolved. His narrow perspective and simple message have been overpraised. John Lahr of The New Yorker finds Mr. LaBute “the best new playwright to emerge in the past decade.” Oh, dear. Have we forgotten Angels in America quite so soon?

Mr. Kushner’s masterly epic drama of our time had something to say about evil, too, in an America characterized by criminal minds, selfish and greedy and loveless and blind. His memorable modern morality play was, among much, about Good and Evil, the iconography of the Old Testament, the disintegration of tolerance and cities and dreams, the survival and struggle of the gay community, the eloquent yearning for an answer, a prophet, a messiah, salvation and love.

Let’s leave it there. If Bash Is a Contact Sport, Where’s the Blood?