Playwright and screenwriter Neil LaBute is fond of throwing hot, often untouchable cultural issues onto his theatrical table and then watching his audiences squirm. For instance, the brutal misogyny at the heart of his film In the Company of Men can be absolutely breathtaking.
In his play In a Forest, Dark and Deep, now at the None Too Fragile Theater in Akron, LaBute trots out some more misogyny for audience to chew over. And by throwing in some not-so-subtle feints at incest and disquisitions on Truth, there are clearly many bases he wants to touch in this piece.
This two-hander puts us in a remote cabin where Betty has asked her brother Bobby over to help her move out some of the possessions of her former boyfriend. Betty is separated from her husband and living apart from him and their two kids while she works at a liberal arts college as a dean. Bobby is decidedly blue collar and has little patience with Betty’s uppity vocabulary and the boyfriend who apparently reads The New Yorker.
Soon, the brother-sister bickering starts, and we learn that Betty has been free with her sexual favors for many years, even back into high school when she was caught giving a hummer to one of her teachers. Bobby is righteously offended by this, even though he’s not exactly a morally upright citizen himself. As Betty spins her lies and Bobby slowly unwinds them, we see how truth can take many forms and how family relationships can be torturously fraught.
Trouble is, LaBute is so enamored of his own writing he over-embellishes many scenes, leading to a one-act running time of nearly two hours. More importantly, he never makes it clear what either of these characters has at stake. When the plotting reveals become ever more serious, as the conclusion approaches, we see the electric conflict between these two. But it feels like static electricity, due to the absence of a back-story that could fill in some details about their lives. Lacking that, it seems like she’s a slut, he’s a jerk, and that’s that. So when they eventually bond, it seems a trifle convenient and just a bit forced.
That said, the performances of Sean Derry as Bobby and Leighann Niles Delorenzo as Betty are powerful. They smoothly interweave and overlap their conversations, as siblings would, while building a sense of dread along the way. Director Andrew Narten has a good sense of the pulse of this relationship, even though some of the beats could be turned more crisply.
Even though In a Forest isn’t one of LaBute’s best, it deals with actual issues and isn’t just another collection of dysfunctional people who show up in the same place. And for that we can be truly grateful.
In a Forest, Dark and Deep
Through September 19 at None Too Fragile Theater, 1835 Merriman Road, Akron(enter through Pub Bricco), nonetoofragile.com.