The trouble with outrage as an artistic device is that it’s like a drug. It’s potent and addictive, you have to keep upping the dosage to attain the same high, and, after a while, you begin not to notice that you’re getting numb instead of high. That, I think, is just what has happened to Neil LaBute, the gifted 38-year-old filmmaker who came to prominence with In the Company of Men (1997), his delectably ambiguous drama of corporate malevolence and one-upmanship, and then followed it with the far more crudely and didactically ”dark” Your Friends & Neighbors (1998). He has now returned to his playwriting roots with Bash, a three-act minimalist psychodrama that consists of two monologues and one duet, all primed to wound.
This time, the characters are Mormons (like LaBute), but the episodes take the form of secular confessions. In each case, we watch as an ”ordinary” person, speaking to an unseen listener, describes the circumstances that led up to his or her committing an unfathomable act of long-suppressed violence. A teenage boy gets murdered. A baby gets murdered (do you sense a slight continuity of theme here?). A gay man gets the holy living crap beaten out of him. Bash has nothing if not a kicky, and commendably accurate, title. It’s about the people who bash, and the people who get bashed by them. Gee, aren’t they a bit like you and me?
The first character is a disheveled, greasy-haired former teenage wastrel, played by Calista Flockhart, who sits under a hot bright police-interrogation light and recounts the tale of how she was seduced and abandoned by her junior-high-school science teacher. She became pregnant and had the child, and when the kid reached the same age that she was when she gave birth, she exacted a horrifyingly misplaced revenge. Flockhart, a veteran stage actress, does all that she can to shed the zeal of Ally McBeal. Speaking in a halting trailer-park drawl, she has a convincing fragility, and her birdlike physique is perfect for evoking the sexual powerlessness of adolescence. She holds you, at least for a while, and so does LaBute, who makes the character just cryptic enough in her tremulous woe to sustain our gaze. It’s a little odd, though, not to mention confusing, that Flockhart has been directed to act like a naively scattered teenager all the way through. More than anything, she seems trapped in the persona, and so, by the end, does the monologue.
In the second — and, by far, best — of the three, Ron Eldard, who has been a regular on ER and has had small-scale roles in such films as Deep Impact and Scent of a Woman, gives a superb, multilayered performance as a blustery, ”outgoing” middle-management type, the sort of American-bureaucratic loser who, between halfhearted bouts of bravado, seems to disappear behind his mustache. Seated in a sterile Vegas hotel room, he pours out his soul to the woman he has picked up downstairs, describing the nightmare precipice of being downsized. When he’s convinced that the tragic end of his employment has arrived, his anxiety erupts in a far more destructive way than that of the hostile drones from In the Company of Men. It happens at home, with the gurgling of his baby, who has been placed in a comforter on his bed, acting as a siren call to vengeance….
Here’s the rub: I simply didn’t believe the horrific payoff of either of these stories. As a spinner of dialogue, LaBute, at his best, casts quietly roiling spells of disenchantment and impotence. Yet his characters keep arriving at apocalyptic moments of truth that are meant to shock us, and when these bash-orama catharses ring false, we’re left with the inescapable suspicion that the deepest motivation behind the shocks is LaBute’s desire to call attention to his own daring as an artist.
In the final episode, Paul Rudd plays a tuxedoed Boston College party boy who recounts the night he came to New York with his girlfriend, went out on the town with his buddies, and ended up trailing a gay man into a public rest room and beating him mercilessly, perhaps to death. As the scenario hits its ugly climax, in nose-splitting detail (and with the inevitable dash of homoerotic ”subtext”), we wait for a whisper of revelation — for a soul-shattering peek into the psychology of gay bashing. Instead, we seem to be peering into the dead heart of a cardboard jock from a bad ’80s teen movie. (Flockhart, speaking opposite Rudd in alternating snippets, plays his girlfriend as guilty in her very superficiality.) It’s unfortunate, too, that the monologue comes off as such a blatant and unimaginative retread of Jason Patric’s extraordinary homosexual-rape-as-nirvana speech in Your Friends & Neighbors. Showcasing insensitivity may look like a form of taboo-smashing truth, but LaBute, for all his talent, has begun to use it as a ritualistic shortcut to dramatic power. He’s staging cruelty in a void. C+