This Is How It Goes
Running Thurs.-Sat through Feb. 4
PURE Theatre
The Cigar Factory
701 East Bay St.

The narrator of Neil LaBute’s play This is How It Goes at PURE Theatre begins by telling the audience that there’s a girl; “But then, there always is.” Clearly, there’s trouble ahead. He is never given a name (only “Man” in the text); he is the representative. Of men, of humans, of dark sides, of desires.

Man returns to his hometown after ventures in the Army Reserves, law, and marriage. He encounters his high-school crush, Belinda, who’s married but flirts back anyway. As always, LaBute skillfully plants the seeds for trouble in steps. Belinda calls her marriage “regular,” then eventually the pair agree to meet at Shoe Carnival — to shop for shoes for her son, of course.

Belinda’s marriage may or may not be regular. She’s white, and her husband Cody, a successful developer, is one of the few black people in their small town. He and Belinda began dating in high school, when he had some laughs at Man’s expense.

The play proceeds to delve into seduction, game-playing, and power struggles. And although it’s often called “a play about racism,” it isn’t fully. The racist language in some scenes definitely stands out, but the issue is just a part (enormously integral nonetheless) of a web of dark human flaws.

Director Dana Friedman’s clever staging emphasizes the themes of scrutiny and judgment. The set design (by Friedman, Rodney Lee Rogers, and Julia Levy) has the audience symbolically divided, facing each other across the performance area.

LaBute is a terrific writer of sharp dialogue (he’s a master of making you laugh and later feel guilty about it) and profound themes. The genius of this play lies in its challenge to the audience on so many levels. There is the usual LaButian challenge to look through one’s surface beliefs to the darkest recesses of the id. Then he adds the challenge of following narration from Man — a self-admittedly unreliable narrator. The audience is left to watch events unfold through his eyes instead of our own.

Here’s where LaBute’s genius turns on him, however. His tricky narrator keeps the audience from ever trusting anything. And while that’s challenging, when you have nothing to trust, you can’t believe you’re truly being shown anything of substance. Also, LaBute has gotten so caught up in his penchant for Shyamalan-esque twists that they’ve become almost tiresome to those familiar with his work. The big revelation here — even though he parodies himself by acknowledging it — disappoints, not only because it’s less interesting than the “real” situation but also because we don’t know if it even really happened.

PURE saves LaBute’s flailing plot with a strong ensemble. David Mandel as Man seems just right for the role. He builds a strong rapport with the audience, and his charm leads them right where it’s supposed to — a place of surprising discomfort. Ann Elizabeth “Biz” Lyon lends a delicate and sympathetic quality to the girl who, from the beginning, was just out to get attention. Johnny Ali Heyward brings out Cody’s complexity with a smoldering condescension, anger, and intimidation. Yet Belinda’s and Cody’s actions, as we see them, come to us through the eyes of our untrustworthy narrator, which in a way deprives them of any real qualities.

LaBute hits on some beautiful and frightening points — he always does — through brutal dialogue and eerily realistic characters, so it’s too bad the chance to solidly explore the themes gets buried in writing gimmicks. Still, PURE’s production makes the most of LaBute’s dramaturgical mélange. In spite of the script’s flaws, This Is How It Goes contains some profound moments that PURE delivers impressively on.