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THEATER REVIEW

A brew of love, revenge, taboos

June 22, 2007|Philip Brandes | Special to The Times

"People should be honest with each other every 12 years or so," says the disappointed wife at the center of an edgy interracial love triangle in Neil LaBute's sharp-edged comedy "This Is How It Goes."

Fat chance. Bad behavior is LaBute's stock in trade, and a gutsy, riveting staging by Santa Barbara's Ensemble Theatre Company shows the playwright at his merciless, provocative best as he plows through racist and sexist taboos without so much as tapping the brakes for honesty, let alone political correctness.

In this case, deception is more than a character flaw -- it's a structuring principle of the play itself. The plot twists depend on our taking an immediate liking to our narrator, an unnamed ex-lawyer turned aspiring writer who has returned to his Midwest hometown after several years.

Perfectly cast in the role, Aaron Serotsky adroitly hooks us with affable charm in his confessional, fourth-wall-penetrating narration between scenes.

He begins with his endearingly awkward chance reunion with Belinda (Shannon Koob), the object of his unrequited high school crush. Now unhappily married to Cody (Adam Lazarre-White), a former track star and prominent businessman, Belinda finds a refreshing confidant in her old schoolmate, an opening he is quick to exploit by renting a converted garage loft to be closer to her.

The men in LaBute's universe tend to be either clueless, insecure losers or arrogant, narcissistic jerks. If our narrator is a recovering specimen of the former, Lazarre-White's Cody is a textbook antihero of the second type -- smug, domineering and manipulative. Marital tensions between Cody and Belinda escalate with unsettling precision in finely tuned performances under Jonathan Fox's promising first homegrown effort since becoming the company's artistic director.

That these depictions of events are being filtered through an increasingly untrustworthy narrator is a deception he cheerfully admits, even offering alternative versions of pivotal confrontations in the interest of creative storytelling.

But more malignant impulses are also in play. His designs on Belinda are entangled in long-festering resentments toward Cody, who bullied him in school and still has no compunction about using the race card to get what he wants -- "playing the Ace of Spades," the narrator calls it before backpedaling with an embarrassed "C'mon, it was just a joke." It's only a foretaste of the increasingly outrageous, squirm-inducing attitudes that surface on all sides, putting the lie to the recurring assertion that "words only have power if you let them."

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`This Is How It Goes'

Where: Ensemble Theatre, 914 Santa Barbara St., Santa Barbara

When: 8 tonight through Saturday; 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday

Ends: Sunday

Price: $25 to $37.50

Contact: (805) 962-8606; www.ensembletheatre.com

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

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