A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Wrecks seems an apt title for Neil LaBute's latest play which premiered in Cork, Ireland last year (also with Harris) and has now opened at the Public Theater. After all, LaBute has made a reputation with wrecking his characters' lives. With advance publicity hinting that this is as much a confession as a grieving widower's reflections on the lost love of his life, I expected Mary Josephine, or Jo-Jo as Edward called her, to have died in some sort of violent car wreck for which he was responsible. When he explains that she died of lung cancer (a second hand smoke victim, with chain smoking Edward next in line to meet the grim reaper), I thought maybe he wrecked the car to save her from a long, painful death. Wrong, wrong wrong.
While the script actually includes a near car wreck, that's not all that pivotal an incident. This is very much a love story, though that's not to say that LaBute has gone soft and given up on challenging our concept of acceptable social behavior. Harris's monologue is full of warmth and humor but it has a decidedly LaButian twist.
For all its arrival with a surprising bang, that twist will seem more obvious than surprising once you reconsider what has gone before.
Since O. Henry's day, stories with surprise finishes have been something of a dilemma for book and drama critics. How can you talk about the writer's cleverness in building a trail to the twisty ending without spoiling the surprise? To avoid falling into this trap, I'll put my comments about LaBute's finale and its effect on this whole enterprise into a yellow box following the production notes. I suggest that you don't read it until after you've seen the play.
In the meantime, whether you respond with a "wow!" or a thumbs down to Wreck's ending, you'll find the play tremendously watchable. LaBute is no stranger to the monologue format (his first big stage hit, bash: latter day saints, strung together three short monologues) and Harris, with his intense blue eyes and dimple, is a forceful actor— dynamic enough to be the sole attraction. As Edward Carr, the dead woman's husband, he manages to make us forget the movie star (Pollock, John Glenn in The Right Stuff, etc.) and accept him as a rather ordinary sixty-year-old Midwesterner with an old-fashioned conservative bent, a man who loved his wife with extraordinary passion and devotion. He admits that he's not a fellow with the touch of a poet, yet he talks about his Mary Joe or Jo-Jo as "absolute heaven come to earth and squeezed into human form."
Carr's ruminations take place in the funeral parlor's ante room with the coffin to which he has come to get away from the people paying their respects. Thus the audience becomes privvy to his inner thoughts and the memories he's unlikely to include in the next day's eulogy.
Those memories take us through his life, marriage and the successful classic car leasing business he and his Jo-Jo built. Gradually, the basically familiar story of a middle America couple is peppered with some out of the ordinary details — his foster home childhood, her being fifteen years older and unhappily married when they meet (he a twenty-five year-old virgin, she a mother of two teen sons), Their marriage, once the hurdle of husband number one is cleared, is loving in every way — they are partners in business, the sex is wonderful and they have two children.
Harris is so vibrant and likeable — by turns funny, reflective and touching— that there's nothing saccharine, depressing or boring about all this. LaBute who is directing his own work has staged it with more dramatic and visual flair than you find in most solo plays. The coffin, the flowers, the pictures and the few seats are all in a striking grisaille palette (bravo to designer Klara Zieglerova) and Harris connects with the audience that surrounds the stage on all three sides without seeming to make a conscious effort to do so.
Harris's confidences build toward his inevitable final moments with Jo-Jo and the revelation of a tragic secret that prompted the unhappy first marriage and haunted her even during the loving second one. But I'm not breaking my promise about not giving that final twist away. That secret, like everything Ed tells us, is a clue of sorts to the theme driving LaBute's surprise ending. It's cleverly done but you'll have to see the play to decide whether it leaves you satisfied or disappointed that all the sympathy Harris built up has been squandered in the interest of cleverness. (Review continued in yellow box below-- to be read AFTER you see Wreck)
Links to other Neil LaBute reviews:
The Distance From Here (London & New York)
The Shape of Things(London and NYC)
The Shape of Things (Berkshires)
This Is How It Goes (Public Theater, NY)
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