When the lights come up on "Bash," filmmaker Neil LaBute's first New York play in 10 years, Calista Flockhart sits behind an interrogation table puffing on a Camel Light. Her hair is straight and stringy, and she wears a small gold dolphin around her neck. She looks tired. "Should I just speak?" she asks. "Is that OK? 'Cause I got to sort of ease into it, you know?"
At the start, it's hard to tell if Flockhart, who plays Ally McBeal on TV and a ravaged anorexic for the tabloids, is performing the role of a teenager or a coarse woman. She's certainly unsophisticated. She punctuates her monologue with "you know" and casual profanity. She's hardly a spunky lawyer, nor a glamorous Helena. She's playing one of those contrarian roles that actors take on to prove that they're acting, that they still care about the craft, that they're not coasting on revealing miniskirts.
Her all-American appeal makes her a perfect fit for LaBute, who wrote and directed the brutal black comedies "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends and Neighbors." She's pretty, but dressed down in an ordinary way. We want to trust her. We want to like her. We do these things, LaBute will show us later on, because we're chumps, because we've forgotten that ordinary people are capable of terrible, terrible things.
"Bash" comprises three separate one-act plays. The first two are monologues, delivered separately by Flockhart and Ron Eldard ("Deep Impact," "Sleepers"). The third is a
monologue told intermittently by Flockhart and Paul Rudd ("200 Cigarettes," "The Object of My Affection"). To some extent, "Bash," directed by Joe Mantello ("Love! Valor! Compassion!" "The Santaland Diaries"), is simply an extension of the principal theme in LaBute's films: Men are sadistic animals. They take advantage of women and weasel out of their responsibilities. They'll go to extraordinary lengths to stay ahead. They're crude, aggressive and homophobic. They beat up fags.
But "Bash" goes one step further. "Bash" tells us, quite clearly, that men -- and sometimes women -- behave this way because, as Flockhart's first character says, the world is out of balance. We can beat fate in the short run, and we can blame fate for our own appalling actions, but sooner or later, fate is going to rear up and roar back at us.
As it turns out, Flockhart's first character -- who isn't named but whom we'll call Medea, after the title of the act, "Medea Redux" -- is in her late 20s, but she still hasn't grown up. She was 13 when her teacher hit on her during a class field trip, in front of a shark tank at the aquarium. They fell in love, she says, listening to Billie Holiday in the cockpit of his Peugeot. She got pregnant. She promised she would keep their secret, and she did. Her teacher moved to Arizona.
There's no indication that she initiated what she refers to as their "relationship." She was young, impressionable and taken advantage of by an older man. "You don't say stuff like that to a 13-year-old," Medea says about the compliments her teacher used to seduce her. "You just don't, uh-uh, 'cause she'll be yours for life." When she gets pregnant, she maintains a stoic silence. Years later, she tells us, she took her 14-year-old boy, Billie, to a motel room to meet his father. He gave the boy a book of Greek myths. Up to this point, we believe that she's as much of a victim as the deaf typist who's set up to have her heart broken in "In the Company of Men." But when the boy's father leaves the hotel room, and Medea exacts her awful revenge, the entire play changes direction and our assumptions are proven wrong.
In the second play, Eldard plays a nameless businessman who's lured a stranger into a cheap hotel room to hear his confession. The businessman speaks in clichis and unctuous smiles. He could be one of Chad's associates in "In the Company of Men," casually trashing "affirmative-action nonsense" and "that feminist stuff." He sweats insincerity. He was, he tells us, steeped in the small drama of middle-management office politics when his baby died. We don't like him, but he plays us for our sympathy and draws us further into his story. Even if we don't trust him, we feel sorry for him.
In the third play, Flockhart and Rudd play Sue and John, a beautiful young couple from Boston University recounting a fly-by-night road trip with their friends to a stylish party in Manhattan. They're vibrant and giddy when telling their tale. By this time, we know we're being mocked for our easy allegiances, but the tale unfolds so gracefully that we buy into it anyway. We like them just because, well, they're so damn congenial and they look great in their party clothes. Later, while the girls sleep off the party, John and his buddies lure a gay man into a Central Park bathroom and beat him bloody.
The interesting thing about LaBute is that he doesn't use irony lightly. All three plays end with crushing ironic twists -- and not just the wink-wink variety, although there's plenty of that. He uses the device to insist everything we thought we knew is wrong.
(Warning: The rest of this paragraph contains serious spoilers that you should avoid if you plan to see the play.) In the first, Medea kills her boy, throwing a radio playing Billie Holiday into his bathtub. She imagines that the boy's death will overwhelm his father with grief. In the second, it turns out that Iphegenia killed his baby girl to earn a sympathy vote and save his job. In the third, John slips a gold ring off the gay man's finger as he lies unconscious on the bathroom floor. The next morning, Sue finds it glinting in her glass of water -- an anniversary present.
Medea and Iphegenia are motivated by villainy. John, it seems, is a bigot who
cracks, then feels relish instead of remorse. Medea and Iphegenia are both victims of sorts. John is pure privilege. The inconsistency isn't a flaw; it's the point. Some evil is dull and without motivation; some evil is avenging and fascinating. The world is out of whack and LaBute's characters respond to it with evil. It's more depressing that way.
If there's a flaw in "Bash," it's the writer's attack on Mormons. "Bash" is subtitled "Latterday Plays," and all of the characters are Mormon -- like LaBute, who graduated from Brigham Young University. They talk about going on missions. They drink water instead of wine. Maybe "Bash" is supposed to rip open the sunny, clean, all-American face of the religion, but their evil is wholly unrelated to the church's belief system. LaBute's characters could easily be Catholics or Jews or Christian Scientists -- any religion with a set of codes that seem bizarre to outsiders. If "Bash" were a movie, Mormons would probably rally against LaBute the way that some Catholics are already jumping up to protest Kevin Smith's still unreleased "Dogma." The thing is, they'd probably be justified. It's not that "Bash" shouldn't be seen, but it is offensive.
I don't like LaBute's work -- rather, I don't enjoy it -- but it strikes me as honest. There are few artists who are so guiltlessly ruthless. (Alexander Payne, who directed "Citizen Ruth" and "Election," is a peer and a notable exception.) And while it's easy not to like LaBute, it's difficult not to be affected by his films or this play. They don't evaporate when you leave the theater.
When LaBute made "In the Company of Men," he told Salon Arts & Entertainment that he was trying to make a film that people hadn't seen before. His statement is perfectly misleading. "In the Company of Men" was, of course, effective because most of us have seen such base behavior in others, if not ourselves, plenty of times. "Bash," then, creates a similarly self-flagellating experience for the audience. If we're there to hide from everyday evil, we're in the wrong place.