Playwright Neil LaBute is a master manipulator, and man, does it feel good.
His latest jaunt into our knee-jerk reactions is “This Is How It Goes,” a race-themed “Rashomon” with twists and kinks reminiscent of that master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock. You’d never believe that bigotry could be entertaining, but Studio Theatre’s lively production, directed by Paul Mullins, makes an uncomfortable discussion a stinging pleasure.
Mr. LaBute seems to press a different social or psycho-sexual hot button with each new work in his cynical — or is it realistic? — oeuvre. This time the issue is ingrained racism, and he suggests that Generation X-ers and beyond may not be as colorblind as they profess.
A common thread running through Mr. LaBute’s body of work is the proposition that we’re a society that values appearance above substance: The good-looking can get away with all sorts of mischief, while the less appealing are left to slog through the ethical and moral murk with their fellow schlubs.
Shock value is integral to his technique, and “This Is How It Goes” elicits a visceral reaction — but in this case some of his manipulations are so blatant and cheap you wind up feeling more used than usual.
An element of the carny act pervades the actions and voiced thoughts of a character known as the Man (Eric Feldman, in a deceptively genial performance), a smiling charmer with the eager-to-please demeanor of a flimflam man. He introduces himself as the play’s narrator, but he soon proves an unreliable source — lying to the audience, presenting variations on scenes, and never divulging his real motives nor the whole story.
The Man is not simply an observer, but also an interested participant in an interracial love triangle. He returns to his unnamed Midwestern town after an absence of 12 years and quickly re-establishes contact with Belinda (Anne Bowles), the golden blond cheerleader he had a crush on in high school. Belinda, clad in an array of full-skirted sundresses like a 1950s paper doll, is as gorgeous and friendly as ever, and is caught in a stagnant marriage to Cody (Benton Greene), the school’s former track star and big man on campus.
Cody, rich and black and possessing a Midas touch, seems on the surface the ultimate catch. Together, they look like spokespeople for perfection, and as it turns out, the main reason they got together was the addictive thrill of standing out in a crowd — as both a mixed race couple and as singular beauties.
One of the mysteries in the play is why Belinda throws Cody over for the nebbishy Man, who comes across as harmless but in reality is somewhat of a sarcastic creep. It is never clear why he shows up in town, and the coincidences and ease with which he becomes a part of Belinda and Cody’s life are highly suspicious.
“This Is How It Goes” may be about racism, and the Man spews the “n-word” and other racial epithets with alarming casualness, but at its core, the play is a treatment of deep-seated misogyny. Yes, Cody sees every encounter and conversation as racially charged, and the Man may be a prejudiced jerk at heart, but both men are pure swine when it comes to how they treat Belinda. She is an object, a possession to be heartlessly swapped like one of the Man’s prized baseball cards.
While the play provokes highly vocal audience outrage, it is ultimately too slickly glib to leave any lasting impression. The characters, especially Belinda and Cody (although expertly played by Miss Bowles and Mr. Greene), are skin-tone caricatures, mere mouthpieces for Mr. LaBute’s screed that looks are everything. And the Man, for all his trickster moves and head games, is transparent, a pleasure as fleeting and superficial as those found in “This Is How It Goes.”
WHAT: “This Is How It Goes” by Neil LaBute
WHERE: The Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW
WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Feb. 11.
TICKETS: $39 to $55
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS