Monday, June 24, 2013

Two's Company, Three's A Crowd

For writers attempting to build a plot upon a love triangle, the introductory stages of "Getting to Know (Blow) You" are easy. It's later, when familiarity breeds contempt, that things get really messy.

It doesn't matter how a third person gets ensnared in a couple's relationship problems. Once lust fades and is replaced by languor (or leads to lashing out) it becomes clear that one person must be removed from a toxic environment in order for it to regain any semblance of equilibrium.

But where to start? Where to start?

Wade Gasque's 15-minute short, Housebroken, shows what happens when infinite idealism gets crushed by a predatory couple who initially view their guest as the perfect distraction from the problems straining their relationship.  As Gasque notes: "Relationships are tricky. When we’re not in one, we can start to feel worthless and view every couple we meet with envy. On the flip side, anyone in a long-term relationship can attest to that yearning for the fun, simple days of single life."

When Paul (Mark Strano) arrives in Los Angeles from the East Coast hoping to couch surf at the apartment of Dean (Justin Schollard) and Danni (Carrie Keranen) it seems as if he's landed in heaven. Not only are his hosts all cute and cuddly, they seem genuinely interested in helping him find with a job and make solid connections.

Justin Schollard, Mark Strano, and Carrie Keranen in Housebroken

It doesn't take long for Paul to find himself caught between their jealous accusations, temper tantrums, and volatile insecurities. Only at the end of the film, when Paul manages to disentangle himself from this dysfunctional couple, does he look at a previously-ignored text message from a friend who warned "Dude, whatever happens, DO NOT have sex with D&D!"

Perhaps Housebroken's depiction of a disintegrating menage-a-trois should have been titled "Thruple, Thruple, Toil and Trouble." As conventional wisdom warns: "A thruple may provide twice as much sex, but comes with six times as much emotional baggage."

* * * * * * * * *
Paul's loss of innocence seems like child's play compared to the machinations and power plays on display in Neil LaBute's 2005 dramedy, This Is How It Goes (which is currently being staged by the Aurora Theatre Company). As the show's director, Tom Ross, explains:
"Frequently referred to as the bad boy of contemporary theatre, LaBute has written this play to get under your skin. This is Neil LaBute unfiltered; a moralist who confronts our darkest behavior. I think This Is How It Goes is one of his most controversial plays. Although we all pat ourselves on the back that we live in a liberal enclave, racism does happen, and we can't just push it under the rug. This play has a fantastical role for an African-American actor and really pushes the audience's buttons in the way it confronts racism." 
Belinda (Carrie Paff) and Cody (Aldo Billingslea) are an interracial
couple in This Is How It Goes (Photo by: David Allen)

LaBute's script involves three adults who attended high school together in a small Midwestern town.
  • Cody (Aldo Billingslea) is an African-American businessman with a type A personality, a short temper, and an extremely competitive streak. A former high school jock who has evolved into a dominating control freak, he's what playwright Jon Robin Baitz describes as a typical LaBute-style bully: "a scared, fucked-up little child out to fight old wars long forgotten."
  • Belinda (Carrie Paff) is Cody's very white wife, who admits that she married him so that she could piss off her parents and so that people would pay attention to her. With two kids, however, their marriage has soured. Tired of her husband's continued putdowns, Belinda is constantly cringing in dread of domestic violence.
  • The Man (Gabriel Marin) is an old classmate who has returned to town after a failed attempt to build a career as a lawyer. In high school, he weighed a lot more, was known for cracking jokes, was bullied by Cody, and fell madly in love with Belinda. When he runs into the woman of his dreams near a strip mall at the beginning of the play and nervously makes plans to meet up again to rehash old times, he demonstrates a life-long propensity for putting his foot in his mouth.
Gabriel Marin and Carrie Paff in This Is How It Goes
Photo by: David Allen)

The Man also has problems telling the truth, often choosing to narrate his story through a rather self-serving perspective. LaBute (who claims to have been abused as a child) credits his father for teaching him the power words have to hurt other people. During his college years, the playwright converted to Mormonism. However, after writing a set of controversial monologues  (Bash: Latter-Day Plays) in which Mormon characters were portrayed as murderers, he was "disfellowshipped" by the Church of Latter Day Saints and no longer considers himself a Mormon. As he explains:
"It's part of my makeup to ruin a perfectly good day for people. I think that people are very driven by self-preservation and find it extremely difficult to live with other people, to maintain friendships, and to be honest. If it's slightly easier to get away with something, then they'll give it a shot. Humans find it so easy to just slide by, to take the road that's slightly easier, to make the choice that's just a bit more selfish or self-serving. To be able to create those characters, I have to be able to inhabit them. What interests me is to try and understand that person. It's not the racism joke that interests me so much as how they justify it. That fascinates me: What people do to live with themselves and what they've done.

I feel I have a kind of bravado in my writing that I don't have in life. I write things on a page that I don't want to have to deal with in life. Writing is a safe vacuum for me because I'm not saying those horrible things to someone's face. On the page, I can always find the great retort that doesn't come to me at the right moment in life.  But I always keep an eye on the pretty guy who can hurt me. Being pretty can bring out the worst in people. Pretty guys have this glow -- no matter how bad they are, people keep going back to them."
Gabriel Marin and Aldo Billingslea in
This Is How It Goes (Photo by: David Allen)

Because LaBute's play is so intricately plotted and deals with the racism one expects to find in a small town, I'll refrain from giving away any of the surprises the playwright throws in the audience's face. Let's just say that, having seen this play at the end of the day in which the media couldn't stop talking about Paula Deen's history of racist remarks, This Is How It Goes delivers a walloping dramatic punch. And, for what it's worth, its narrator also delivers a great dick joke.

Beautifully directed by Tom Ross with stunning performances by Aldo Billingslea, Carrie Paff, and Gabriel Marin (who seems to have developed a strong suit for portraying goofy schlemiels), LaBute's play offers audiences a 90-minute roller coaster ride between smugness and doubt, between jealousy and fear. This is the kind of play wherein caustic accusations fly as freely and fiercely as in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the children remain safely offstage.

Aldo Billingslea as Cody in This Is How It Goes
(Photo by: David Allen)

Performances of This Is How It Goes continue through July 21st at the Aurora Theatre Company (click here to order tickets). Be warned: this ain't no  Neil Simon comedy!

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