Neil LaBute’s best

Neil LaBute's engrossing This Is How It Goes plays with the realities of racism

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click to enlarge LOVE TRIANGLE: (Left to right) Ryan McCarthy, David Dolphy and Heather Scheffel deal with race and love issues in This Is How It Goes. - Courtesy Of Jobsite Theater
Courtesy Of Jobsite Theater
LOVE TRIANGLE: (Left to right) Ryan McCarthy, David Dolphy and Heather Scheffel deal with race and love issues in This Is How It Goes.

One of the many clever things about Neil LaBute's This Is How It Goes, currently playing in a top-notch Jobsite production, is how its two main themes — dishonesty and white racism — work together.

Narrating the play — and warning us that he may be lying through his teeth — is the white character "Man," who may or may not be a racist and who is either rescuing or stealing his old white high school friend Belinda from her African-American husband Cody. The point is, we never know how much of the story Man narrates actually happened and how much of it is a lie designed to excuse his role in this triangle.

Is Cody a kind and loving husband or is he mean-spirited and abusive? Did Belinda get a black eye one day because Cody punched her or because she ran into a cupboard door? Man encourages us to remember that either case could be factual — he even shows us alternate versions of the black eye story — and also gives us reason to believe that what we're seeing on stage may be nothing but a fiction constructed by an "unreliable narrator."

Can we believe anything we see or hear in This Is How It Goes?

It isn't just a theater game. LaBute's point is that dishonesty just may be the rule in white views of blacks these days. After the success of the civil rights movement, after the apotheosis of men like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, white racism may have gone underground, something thought but never said, something acted upon but never admitted.

So when Man tells us his story — when he shows Cody to be short-tempered, violent and abusive, a danger to his wife or, at the very least, an uncaring husband — we may be getting not even a deliberate fiction, but a fiction emerging from a racism so buried that its own possessor doesn't recognize it.

So yes, "this is how it goes" — when a white man writes the scenes. And maybe, LaBute implies, most whites are "unreliable narrators" when race is the subject.

The tale that Man tells — true or false, as it may be — begins with his meeting his old high school friend Belinda in front of a Sears store. It's been 12 years since they last saw each other, and in the interim she's married track star Cody — whom Man vaguely knew — and had two children. She mentions that she and her husband are looking to rent out an apartment over their garage, and Man, who's given up litigating to try his hand as a playwright, conveniently notes that he's looking for a place to stay and takes the apartment. So the scene is set for a love triangle, with the additive of race.

And that additive is all-important: because what Man shows us of Cody may be a bigot's invention.

To magnify Man's reasons for distorting Cody's character, there's the fact that Man is in love with Belinda; he's desired her since high school. Of what must he convince himself in order to conclude that he has the right to break up her marriage?

It gets to the point where we're not sure that "this is how it goes" at all. If Cody were telling the story, would we even recognize these three characters?

One key to the mystery belongs to Belinda, who's presented by Man as a sweet, peace-loving former cheerleader, the girl next door who just wants people to be decent. She tells Man that she was attracted to Cody because she wanted to be different, and she admits to taking pleasure watching the reactions she gets when she's out in public with her black children. But even this small confession may be Man's projection as he tries to imagine what could have driven his high school crush into Cody's arms. Some of Belinda's complaints sound credible — that Cody's not communicative enough, that he spends too much time thinking about his business.

But if race can lead us to misread our perceptions, love can do just the same, and it's hard to know how much of the Belinda we see on stage is to be taken seriously.

After all, men have been misrepresenting women since theater began — what truth about femininity does Medea illustrate? — and the more we know Man, the less likely we find it that he sees anything clearly. And there's another consideration that inevitably occurs to us, with some thanks to Pirandello: Maybe you don't have to be a racist to distort and misrepresent people. Maybe you just have to be a playwright.

Fortunately, the team assembled for this Jobsite Theater production is talented enough to set our heads swimming with possibilities. Ryan McCarthy as Man gives us a brilliant performance, one that leaves us guessing at every moment what's real and what's fantasy. There are two sides to McCarthy's Man: the self-deprecating aspiring writer and the wild-eyed, unbalanced asshole who can't stop himself from making offensive racist remarks. As Cody (the one who Man imagines him to be), David Dolphy is bad-tempered and dangerous, more an object of white fears than a full, multilayered human being. And as the woman both men want, Heather Scheffel is Mildness Itself, just the sort of blank page of a female onto which Man can project anything he wants — even a personality.

Ami Sallee Corley's direction is just about perfect, allowing us to entertain all possibilities, from the most realistic to the most outlandish; but one can't help but wish she'd had more to work with than Brian Smallheer's set, which is basically an empty stage onto which a few piece of furniture are carried on and off. Christen Petitt's costumes are just fine, as is John Lott's lighting; but a thoughtfully conceived, even abstract, set could make this experience much more satisfying.

LaBute's theater work has been hit-and-miss — Bash and The Shape of Things on the hit side, The Mercy Seat and Autobahn among the misses — but This Is How It Goes is easily his most profound, incisive and far-reaching play.

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