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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

In a Dark, Dark House — Simpatico Theatre at Walnut 5

untitled (35) Among the dark houses referred to in Neil LaBute’s “In a Dark, Dark House” are the recesses of the mind where one keeps painful memories, in the case of this play, child abuse.

In LaBute’s drama, at Philadelphia’s Simpatico Theatre through June 1, the abuse takes a corporal and sexual form that has significantly affected the lives of two brothers, mildly estranged, who meet and engage in sibling confrontation when one of them is hospitalized by court order for substance abuse and the other is called upon to testify about past doings that may influence a judge’s ruling on the length of his brother’s confinement.

In Neil LaBute territory, two things always happen. Dialogue is terse and direct and aimed to wound, especially if the weapon at hand is the simple truth. Perceptions will shift. LaBute, as plain as he can be in writing byplay between characters, is a trickster who likes to keep his audience off guard and surprise them by showing actual events are far different from what they originally appear to be.

LaBute’s twists come suddenly but potently because he has skillfully foreshadowed them. He obscures his clues so well and makes what each characters says at a given time sound so plausible and complete, it is unnerving when tides turn, and LaBute unveils the stark reality of a situation. Normally, I do not like it when plays depend primarily on withholding key information to sustain interest (the word “primarily” being the operative one since all plays build suspense and intensity by withholding to some extent), but LaBute, in most of his scripts, including “In a Dark, Dark House,” weaves his stories with such craft and cunning, it is both engrossing and fun to see what spin they will take and what information, usually poignant and uncomfortable, will emerge.

The brothers in “In a Dark, Dark House” dance around the deepest issues that lurk between them and color their lives, much as siblings do and people subjected to abuse would. It isn’t until they are forced by circumstanceto reveal their memories and their reaction to them, for reasons that can be either pragmatic or emotionally timely, that the distant brothers intersect in a way that shows they were once close and that their experiences were shared, as each of them suspected but didn’t take the opportunity or have the emotional fortitude to find out. Crisis, in the form of possible institutionalization that borders on incarceration, brings things to a head that leaves neither brother the room to do anything but reveal his story from his perspective, even though LaBute is clever enough to create characters who could conceivably duck issues, lie, refuse to cooperate, or act a part that defuses a tense moment and throws the other sibling off the scent. The game in “In a Dark, Dark House,” as in all of LaBute, is to pick out the moments when characters are being dodgy, coy, or defensive from when they are being sincere.

“In a Dark, Dark House” always keeps you guessing which brother, Terry, the older who works as a security guard and seems clear-eyed, in command, and untainted by disorienting substances, or Drew, a rich and successful lawyer who indulges in all things intoxicating and adulterous and has only a casual relationship with the truth — Well, he is an attorney. —  is the stronger, more stable, and best equipped to deal with the vagaries of the world. The contest is entertaining, a trait it has in common with most of LaBute’s play as presented by Simpatico with atmospheric direction by Harriet Power, sharp, muscular performances by Allen Radway and Ahren Potratz as the brothers, and a balanced, but unbalancing, turn by Mary Beth Shrader.

Power’s production lets you enjoy the sly, parrying natures of LaBute’s confrontations while giving Radway and Potratz room to keep each brother mysterious until the progress of the play insists he reveals his experience and what it meant to his life, allowing “In a Dark, Dark House” to unfold in a way that satisfies rather than shocking for shock’s sake.

Until you know where “In a Dark, Dark House” is heading, and how Power intends to pace her staging, the play takes the pattern of familiar sibling  byplay in which neither Terry nor Drew exhibits much warmth or closeness and both snap crisply at each other, bickering over trivia like use of common slang or their relative wealth, saying spiteful or accusatory things, and coming to a conclusion more in the style of begrudging businessmen than brothers who have love for each other. It’s territory well travelled by Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter, and David Mamet, especially Mamet, as Terry and Drew speak in a jousting fashion, starting their responses before the other has finished his latest retort, and going on with what they want to say even if the other brother has tuned out or changed the subject. The meeting is cautious, distant, and uneasy. A brotherly transaction will take place, a request for a favor and an act of kindness, but tension and anxiety between the siblings remains, and you don’t see a bond that promises a closer future emerging. These brothers are siblings of the moment, not a pair that is going to commune much in day-to-day life. One comes to assist the other when he is need, and you believe  such a favor would be reciprocated. Maybe.

The initial exchanges between the brothers are fast, contrapuntal, and full of typical macho one-upmanship. In themselves, they are too familiar and formulaic to be engaging. It’s how our understanding of the brothers changes during the course of the play that matters.

Clues are dropped. You find out that Terry is a security guard because some kind of record, presumedly criminal, prevents him from seeking more rewarding work. Terry is articulate and clever. He’s the one who doesn’t want conversation between educated thirty-somethings to be peppered with “dude,” “bro,” and “awesome.” Though financially less well off than Drew, and much less connected, he seems like a straight arrow, criminal past or not, who lives a relatively eventless life that suits him.

Drew is the one in the fast lane. He is wearing hospital clothing, that except for a robe could be taken at first for prison garb and is meant at first to suggest it,  and is committed to a mental ward because he has crashed his Porsche while drunk and on a fling with a woman who is not his wife. Investigating after the accident, police found narcotics in the Boxster as well. Drew can afford his luxuries and expensive addictions. He is a high-powered attorney for whom money is no object. Even if he is disbarred, he is known enough as a legal tactician to be a consultant and retain a good chunk of his income. Possession of drugs and driving while intoxicated are his main crimes, and they are first offenses. Drew, appearing needy and like the emotionally dependent younger brother, knows how to argue his case for freedom from commitment to rehab or jail. He needs Terry’s help to do it. Terry has to testify to events from Drew’s youth that led to his seeking solace from alcohol and cocaine and becoming addicted.

Talk about the incidents that can spare Drew severe adjudication suggests child abuse and leads to the meat of LaBute’s play. The brothers’ discussion triggers memories for Terry and sparks an interest in what he sees as parallels in his life and Drew’s, incidents that greatly affected his life but that he has not thought about for a while, preferring to go on as best he can, even with diminished expectations, and letting the past be just that, the past. The favor Drew needs causes Terry to once again delve into matters he relegated to a back burner.  As Terry considers what happened to him and Drew, and the person who was responsible for each of their psychological troubles, he makes a decision that propels “In a Dark, Dark House” from a standard bickerfest between brothers to a play about a man with a mission he can carry out in several ways. The way Terry’s intention manifests itself is pure LaBute, and Power and Radway make the most of it. The second and third acts of “In a Dark, Dark House,” a 100-minute piece performed sans intermission, are taut and filled with interesting curves that give insight into the damage abuse does to two men and how each is likely to cope with it now that all is in the open.

LaBute’s second act, in which Terry is at a rural miniature golf course and asking questions of the teenage female attendant, is calmly acted  by Radway and Shrader but keeps you on edge because you’re never sure of what Terry will do and whether it will include violence or spite. As the scene continues, you feel both the ambivalence of Radway, as Terry, and of your own as what can be construed as vengeful and wrong may in fact be sweet and natural. Either way, the discomfort I mentioned earlier sets in. In the right way. In the dramatic way. In a way that makes you question both Terry’s motives and the unforeseen turn they take as he pursues them. LatBute plays on the attitude characters and the audience may have about a given situation and provides more matters for you to consider than the plot at hand.

Mary Beth Shrader, although not as polished in her line readings as Radway or Potratz, conveys the right blend of innocence and awareness of who she is and what goes on around her to give the second act additional tension and additional surprise as her character, Jennifer, seems to want something from Terry, just as he is using her for his devices.

The second act moves “In a Dark, Dark House” in a different but more provocative direction. It gives LaBute’s play and Power’s production texture that is missing in they expository first act that Radway and Potratz act well but that is more directly dog-eat-dog than cannily cat-and-mouse. The first act just about whet our appetite. The second act makes us eager to find out what happens in the third, again populated by Radway and Potratz, this time at Drew’s estate where a homecoming party is being held to celebrate his release from the hospital.

With all you’ve learned in the preceding acts, the third serves to show the brothers’ past, and their current lives, for what they are. LaBute wraps his various plot meanderings into a neat bow, but not before more factual information fulfills your curiosity for specific details and provide more surprising spins, e.g. one of the brother’s reactions to being molested as a youth.

Allen Radway is shrewdly direct as Terry. A man with many strategic designs and a backdoor way of gathering information, Terry, as played by Radway, never seems anything but straightforward and to the purpose. The audience can see his superior level of gamesmanship in Radway’s eyes, but not in a way that would tip Terry’s hand to Drew or Jennifer, even if Drew has to be aware that Terry is a formidable opponent in any factual or emotional chess match.

Radway goes about Terry’s business quietly but pointedly. There’s a George Clooney quality to his reserve and his way of finding out what he wants to know or forcing Drew to come to grips with a stranger known as the truth.

Radway’s jadedness and self-possession, very adult and very masculine, makes it more affecting when you realize how the same kind of events that led Drew to aggrandizing and self-destructive habits influenced Terry’s life, particularly when you learn how he came afoul of the law and the measures that could easily have been taken to spare him that agony.

Radway’s poise is frightening, especially when you consider decisions Terry made about conducting himself in later life.

As Drew, Ahren Potratz captures the kind of man who has a million excuses for all that goes wrong in his life while taking full and generous credit for what worked out.

Drew is nervous and defensive, and Potratz gives him the posture of a con man who can sell sand to the desert but knows full well what he’s doing and has only occasional pangs of conscience that fade the minute he steps into a Porsche dealership or shares a vintage bottle of Petrus with the latest woman with whom he cheats on his wife.

Potratz plays Drew with the attitude of child who gets into trouble and is contrite and cooperative until he get past the consequences of his act. Though you can see the game he is playing, you have affection for Drew. Like Terry, you don’t buy into his foibles or excuses as much as you want to spare him the indignity and inanity of the mental health or criminal justice systems.

Even is his robe and prison scrubs, Potratz’s Drew looks sharp and groomed and ready to handle anything, It is when Terry comes that Drew, and Potratz, settles into being the younger brother looking for rescue and succor from the older sibling who has reliably provided both in earlier days. With or without the appreciation due him for his fraternal actions.

In the third act, Drew is very much the man of the manor who has recovered some of his hauteur upon coming home yet cannot hold that lordly posture against Terry. Potratz and Radway have some touching third act scenes because LaBute has stripped their characters and façades to the raw and let us see who they are, even though we know Drew will return to his playacting as soon as neither we nor Terry are looking.

Mary Beth Shrader does well in portraying a teen who doesn’t know the world quite as well as she thinks she does  yet is sharper and even sophisticated in ways that go beyond her years or living in a remote mountain town where her father’s miniature golf course is the main attraction. Her byplay with Radway has the right mixture of tension and charm, however clumsy.

I enjoyed the little red windmill with the device that dispatches a golf ball to a lower green Colin McIlvaine found for the second act. An arrangement of poles at different angles also gave the right impression of trees and a wooded area.

Daniel Kontz’s sound design was complete with traffic noise coming from the highway next to the institution where Drew was held.

Harriet Power’s direction gave her actors freedom to create their characters and move naturally about the set. The show was paced to create maximum tension that paid off in all acts, but especially the second and third.

“In a Dark, Dark House,” produced by Simpatico Theatre Project, runs through Sunday, June 1 at the Walnut Street Theatre’s fifth floor black box.  Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 with various discounts and can be obtained by calling 215-423-0254 or by going online to www.simpaticotheatre.org.

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