Donmar Warehouse, London WC2
Opened 31 May, 2005

Neil LaBute is a keenly intelligent playwright, but I'm beginning to fear that he thinks it's enough to flash his ideas without necessarily doing much with them. This Is How It Goes is brimming with issues, observations, games, questions, challenges, but I'm blowed if I know what it's supposed to be "really" "about".

In part, like his Some Girl(s) which opened only last week in the West End, it may be intended to redress the imbalance of his earlier plays which have been seen as misogynistic. In this three-hander, all men... well, both... are indeed bastards, but despite occasional signs of smarts or backbone, the woman is principally a dramatic object, not all that different from the prized baseball card the men argue about. Ostensibly, the engine of the 90-minute piece is race: when protagonist Man (LaBute now seems to treat character names as a frippery) meets up twelve years on with his unrequited high-school innamorata who's now married to the school's black athletics star, it gradually becomes apparent both that husband Cody has major issues with the matter of skin colour and that Man seems unconsciously (or maybe consciously) to be much more racist than he wants anyone, himself included, to believe. (Note also that race is played up every time it's mentioned, but insults and persecution of fat people in similar terms are treated as mere fun: interesting, and I suspect intentional, but directionless.)

However, Man's account of these triangular goings-on is suspect. In his first fourth-wall-breaking speech to the audience he remarks, "Jesus, I think I might end up being an unreliable narrator," and it's never meant as a throwaway gag. (Actor Ben Chaplin is also more stolid, less disarming and easier to suspect than Ben Stiller, who took the role in the play's New York première this spring.) He admits that he makes up details, and even offers alternative versions of one crucial scene. How does this doubtful status colour (ha!) our reading of things? Is Man's racism a bluff or even a double- or triple-bluff? Is the radical late plot twist to be believed? What is actually going on?

If you're like me, you puzzle about it a bit and then give up being bothered. Moisés Kaufman's production (also featuring Idris Elba and a rather too brittle Megan Dodds) is sardonic, deadpanning all these questions and problems at us. Like much of LaBute's output, it works in the moment, but when you've left the theatre you find your grasp is empty.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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