Playwright Neil LaBute is often described as a misanthrope, provocateur, and iconoclast — and a distinctly American one at that (he’s big in Britain, where there is a fondness for his bleak sense of humor). His repertoire includes plays like In the Company of Men and The Shape of Things, which tear open ugly pockets of American social life by staging imagined versions of this country, populated by characters who are almost pathologically manipulative and cruel.
In This Is How It Goes, now in production at Aurora Theatre Company, the topic of race relations gets the full LaBute treatment. Jettisoning any qualms about political correctness, LaBute joins the ranks of David Mamet (Race) as a white playwright who freely writes racial epithets for white and black characters alike, creating a challenging scenario for actors. This language, along with one scene of severe domestic violence and several unexpected plot turns, makes for a duly shocking play.
Cody (Aldo Billingslea) and his wife (Carrie Paff, billed simply as “woman,”) are an interracial couple, living somewhere in the middle of the country where a marriage between a black man and a white woman remains jarring. In public they flaunt their provocative arrangement as well as their relative wealth, but the foundation of their relationship is easily shaken when a white former classmate (“man,” played by Gabriel Marin) enters the picture and fans a long-burning flame for his high school crush, Cody’s wife.
As in LaBute’s other plays, these characters emerge as either pathetic or pernicious, though not in the order you might expect at first. Using a patently unreliable narrator in the form of Marin’s character, LaBute pulls the rug from under the audience several times. Indeed, the fourth wall repeatedly topples as the narrator interrupts the drama, which we learn to be his own projection, to check in with the audience (“things got pretty intense there, huh?”) or disclaim the reliability of his own account (“okay, so it might not have happened exactly that way”). The title of the play references its structure of fallible storytelling and the set design echoes it as well, including a literalized “fourth wall” that is covered with pages from the script.
The result is that the narrator, who first presents himself as a lovable wimp prone to making innocent, if noxious, racial faux pas, turns out to be something of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Likewise, Cody, while less of a sympathetic character on the whole, earns and then loses our understanding as he moves from social victim to predator in a series of unexpected turns. Only the woman, whom Paff plays well as an outwardly cheerful, inwardly frantic prisoner, remains constant. Sexism is clearly at the heart of this play, although it is largely sidelined by the play’s overt focus on other forms of prejudice.
A moralizer through and through, LaBute thus prompts the audience to reflect on its own insidiously racialized modes of judgment — for example, how we often permit “innocent” or “mild” racism from white characters who otherwise seem commendable, just as, conversely, we often excuse troubling flaws in characters of historically wronged groups. By baiting the audience to make such allowances, then revealing the initially sanctioned characters to be utter monsters, This Is How It Goes seems to exist largely to teach a lesson.
The play would certainly not have people talking if not for the surprising and improbable turns in its final part. And yet, these surprising twists of plot and character are not what remain potent when the curtain comes down (indeed, they are rather heavy-handed and confusing, and LaBute only gets away with them by employing the unreliable narrator card). Instead, what ultimately resonates is the play’s incisively detailed portrait of a certain middle-class America. Here, Ralph Lauren polos stand for status, awkward silences are likened to the moment “in church when the AC is about to switch over,” and mild racism is allowed to fester. Such a world is not commonly represented in coastal theater, and when it is, it often appears alien. This time, though, LaBute manages to lob it well into the orbit of Bay Area viewers’ lives, making us rightly uncomfortable.