You could call it “The Book of Mormon: The Dark Side.” Because unlike the popular Broadway musical, this collection of three one-acts by Neil LaBute is a brutal and caustic journey into the black hole of our souls. And the title indicates it’s targeted on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
LaBute was actually drummed out of the Mormon church after this play garnered is first performance in 1999, since it features a collection of deeply troubled Mormons. The playwright seems to have survived his “disfellowship” just fine, but the same may not be said of audience members who encounter this trio of initially deceivingly bland offerings.
The pieces are each based on a different Greek tragedy, but director Sean Derry has chosen not to include the titles of each—probably so that there won’t be a tip-off as to the content to come. The banality of evil is alive and well in each of the presentations which are comprised of four monologues (in one play, the two monologues are performed side-by-side with the actors often taking turns).
In the first, a haggard-looking businessman, who is a Mormon, has invited someone he met in a hotel bar up to his room, to unburden himself about an awful event in his family. As the Man, the splendid Andrew Narten is a spectacular collection of twitches and half-finished sentences as he discusses the loss of his five-month-old child some years before.
Then he veers off into a discussion of his work history, and the problem he had with a female colleague who he perceived as a threat to his job. When these two stories collide, you may wish Derry could come out and offer another shot of Jameson’s to everyone (as he usually does before most performances). It is a shattering piece of work, and Narten’s understated performance is a small, perfect gem.
In the second piece, which is the least successful of the three, Sue (Katie Wells) and John (Brian Kenneth Armour) are Mormon college kids from Boston, off to a bash with friends in New York City. Once again, LaBute sets a rather inoffensive stage as the two deliver their own monologues—he reminiscing about his confrontation with another guy at college and she chatting about her activities that evening in the big city.
It’s only when John relates what happened in a restroom in Central Park as he and a couple of his other frat buddies decide to impose a scriptural lesson on a gay man whom they spot. In this case, playing against the horror of the activity works against the play, as Armour doesn’t quite find the sweet spot between ghastly bland and inoffensive bland. As a result, he seems too much of a mirror image of the naïve girl Wells plays, negating the juxtaposition (as well as the unconscious bonding) between the two that should chill to the bone.
This is exactly the sweet spot Alanna Romansky finds, with unerring accuracy, in the final play. Being interrogated by unseen cops, she tells her story of being sexually tormented by a teacher when she was 14. That’s bad enough, until you learn about what that awful event led to some years later. Quick, where’s that Jameson’s!
Romansky captures the same vibe that Narten does earlier, but in a different manner. And both actors employ LaBute’s surgically terrifying language to maximum effect. While one could quibble with some of the staging elements, such as a lack of differentiation among the three settings, there is no denying the force that Bash exerts on the psyche.
Good thing there’s a pub attached to this theater.
Bash: Latterday Plays
Through November 21 at None Too Fragile Theater,
1835 Merriman Road, Akron (enter through Pub Bricco), nonetoofragile.com.