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In LaBute's 'Bash,' Nothing Is Easy

January 17, 2002|MARK CHALON SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You can't cozy up to Neil LaBute. "In the Company of Men," his controversial movie about a pair of wormy guys out to seduce and destroy a woman, may have been the feel-bad flick of 1997. It simmered with despicability, daring the audience to consider just how low someone can limbo when sexual and emotional sabotage is the game.

LaBute may be more humane, even sentimental, in "Bash," but he still refuses to make it easy.

That works just fine for the Hunger Artists Theatre Company, which has mounted an intimate production in its living-room-sized Santa Ana playhouse. Divided into three disturbing monologues, "Bash" seems to welcome claustrophobia, and director Katie Chidester puts the actors an arm's reach away, making it impossible to ignore these stories.

The first two episodes of the 1999 drama are the best, shifting from unsettling to absorbing in an instant. They're confessions, really, underlining LaBute's fear that lives can change terribly if the wrong decision is made.

In "Iphigenia in Orem," a man (Mark Coyan) sits nervously in front of us, talking to an unseen visitor he met in a bar. Coyan comes across as your typical mid-level executive, eager to make a connection. Slowly he reveals the circumstances of his daughter's death, what he did and didn't do, and the dreadful burden of it all.

If there's zero justification for events in "Iphigenia in Orem," there may be less than zero in the next piece, "Gaggle of Saints." This time, we see a young couple, John (Russ Marchand) and Sue (Jessica Beane), who are as golden as they come. But when the funny, likable John tells of a violent encounter with a gay man in Manhattan's Central Park, the pleasant vibe falls away like a rock thrown in a muddy pond. It's chilling to realize that John will carry this secret forever. Even as Sue squeals about the upcoming wedding, gazing at her man with love, you know the seed has been planted for sadness, and possibly worse, ahead.

The last cautionary tale is "Medea Redux," and it's the least interesting, limping into predictability and lacking definition. A woman (Jami McCoy) is apparently being interrogated and eventually recounts how she was seduced at 13 by a teacher. She has a baby, and, much later, we learn something horrible has occurred and that's why she's being questioned.

McCoy is sensitive to her character's confusion and pain, but LaBute hasn't given her much to work with. It's especially frustrating that the teacher is such a blurry creation; there's never less than vague hints of why the woman was drawn to him in the first place and what the dimensions of their relationship have become. The mystery of who we are and what we're capable of is at the core of LaBute's writing, but here the unknown is just too great.

*

"Bash," Hunger Artists Theatre Company, 204 E. 4th St., Suite I, Santa Ana. Fridays-Saturdays, 8:30 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Also Jan.28, 8:30 p.m. $12 to $15. Ends Feb. 3. (714) 547-9100.

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