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Jo Bonney does it the hard way

For nearly 30 years, the theatrical director has specialized in guiding challenging contemporary dramas to onstage success. Her current project: Neil LaBute's 'The Break of Noon' at the Geffen.

January 30, 2011|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times

When men are behaving badly, Jo Bonney is a good woman to have around.

Take, for example, "John Smith." A few days ago, in the Geffen Playhouse's rehearsal room, Smith was cursing a blue streak at his ex-wife in a new production of Neil LaBute's spiritually inquisitive drama "The Break of Noon." Having survived a tragic office shooting, Smith believes that God has singled him out for a divine mission, like some latter-day suburban St. Paul. But like other born-again souls, Smith suffers occasional relapses to his old self, and as performed by actor Kevin Anderson the character's bouts of ornery misogyny are frighteningly credible.

Bonney, the play's director, watching the scene rise to a bruising crescendo between Anderson and Catherine Dent, wore an expression of serene attentiveness. A few minutes earlier during a rehearsal break, she'd offered an even-toned but razor-sharp critique of the playwright and his methods.

"I know so many people who love his [LaBute's] work and then also a lot of people, particularly women, who are like, 'I don't know, the LaBute male is difficult for me to handle,'" said the soft-spoken Australia native, who previously has directed the author's "Fat Pig" at the Geffen and his "Some Girl(s)" at the MCC Theater in Manhattan.

"Personally, I love it," Bonney continued, "because I think it's like, 'Good, show us the underbelly.' Particularly in this play, because you've got a man who is so fundamentally flawed. And that's what Neil is interested in, not watching a man who went through 'redemption' and became a 'good' man, but a man who struggles to be good."

Such existential wrestling matches are one reason we go to the theater in the first place, Bonney observed. And her particular skill at wrestling contemporary plays into existence is why the New York-based Bonney has become one of the American theater's most coveted directors.

Since the early 1980s, when she first began collaborating with her husband, the actor, playwright and monologist Eric Bogosian, Bonney has gained wide recognition for her skill in midwifing challenging, socially engaged plays into being. The list of plays, both new and revivals, includes Suzan-Lori Parks' "Father Comes Home from the Wars," Naomi Wallace's "The Fever Chart," Bogosian's "subUrbia," Danny Hoch's "Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop," Lanford Wilson's "Fifth of July" and the world premiere of Culture Clash's "American Night" last fall at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Coming up after "Break of Noon," which opens Wednesday: Lynn Nottage's "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark," an irreverent examination of racial stereotypes through the prism of 1930s Hollywood screwball comedies, at Second Stage in New York.

Among the foremost of Bonney's admirers is LaBute, known to cinephiles as the writer-director of "In the Company of Men" (1997) and "Your Friends & Neighbors" (1998) and the director of "Nurse Betty" (2000). The first to admit that "examining the male psyche in extremes" (his words) can be an off-putting experience, LaBute said that he first became familiar with Bonney's work through her artistic partnership with Bogosian. Since Bogosian also has extensively probed the darkness that lurks in masculine hearts, in "Talk Radio" and other works, LaBute reckoned that Bonney would "be someone who would understand the territory and bring something to it."

"She has a really good way in the rehearsal room, a kind of quiet command that allows things to happen," LaBute said. "She has a way of making you think that you figured it out."

LaBute has substantially rewritten the 90-minute "Break of Noon" since Bonney directed its New York debut last November at the Lucille Lortel Theater, with David Duchovny playing the archetypal Everyman John Smith. (In the Geffen production, Tracee Chimo and John Earl Jelks complete the four-person cast.) The New York staging got an unfavorable notice from New York Times critic Ben Brantley, who wrote that although the play shared a theme with LaBute's "The Mercy Seat" (2002) and "Some Girl(s)" — "the possibility of divine grace in an irredeemably human world" — "Break of Noon" "feels like standard-issue LaBute, recycled to the point of thread-bareness."

Asked if LaBute is misunderstood, Bonney laughs.

"I think yes and no. I think he is, but I think also he asks for it, you know? He's a button-pusher. And he loves that. I mean, he revels in that. And then also sometimes he just simply likes a good yarn, a difficult character, a good joke. He's a storyteller, he's an entertainer."

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