Go Deeper

This is How It Goes, When You Deal With Neil LaBute

Posted September 2nd, 2011

Neil LaBute’s work can expose the ugly side of humanity, and audiences can see their own prejudices emerge when LaBute toys with expectations that arise from those prejudices. In this latter-day age of LaBute productions, theater-goers should expect this–but the experience can still be jarring.

“I’m more excited about this than most other plays I’ve done, because I have no idea how people are going to react,” said Kevin Murphy, the artistic director of Room6Theatre, of their 2011 Philly Fringe production of LaBute’s This is How It Goes. “I saw it in London in 2005 and it has maintained permanent residence in my craw ever since. It was the only show in London I went back to see a second time. It kind of plays with the idea of what prejudices we bring to the theater. What do we expect of people? This kind of holds a mirror up to the audience. The work is structured in a way to have surprise reflections.”

The play features an interracial couple, whose old friend (played by Kevin) moves into their guest house. They all knew each other in high school, but it’s been twelve years since they’ve seen each other. The interracial couple is a black man (played by Skye Dennis) and white woman (played by Amelia Murphy), and the black man’s family is the richest in town. According to Kevin and Amelia, it’s a classic love triangle, and nothing is ever as it seems.

After the jump: subverting expectations, and tackling race in Philadelphia theater.

“The moment you think you know where it’s headed,” Kevin said, “it goes in the opposite direction. There are reveals in it. The main character steps out and talks to the audience. He turns to the audience after one and says, ‘You had to expect this here, right?'” Kevin said.

“What’s interesting is how the narrator comments on his own untrustworthiness,” said Amelia Murphy, the group’s managing director.

“You’re definitely getting his point of view on the story. He’s truthful in the sense that he doesn’t need you to believe anything,” Kevin said.

“It’s a three-person show, and it’s very deceiving,” Kevin said. “It’s a very simple story, but very nebulous in terms of time and truth.”

“The theme is the idea that once you start telling the story, it becomes a half-remembered version. The main character lets the audience know right away that it might not all be true. It puts the audience in the position of having to decide what’s true or not true. There’s definitely a consciousness in all characters about saving face publically,” Kevin says.

A consciousness of race in Philadelphia theater also infuses their production.

“I noticed in Philadelphia, with an all black cast I was working with [as an acting coach] on a film—they were telling me about plays happening that I never heard about,” Kevin said.

While a number of recent productions in Philadelphia have featured multi-racial casts, Kevin and Amelia said that few pieces of theater, at least since they’ve been in town, have explicitly tackled race as a subject.

“This play in particular addresses race without being melodramatic,” Kevin said.

“And it addresses it without giving answers,” Amelia said.

Penn State alumni, Kevin and Amelia studied practical aesthetics from Jim Wise, who had studied under William H. Macy at the St. Nicholas Theater in Chicago.

“A play like this lends itself to that approach,” Kevin said. “It’s very action-oriented, allowing the audience to have emotional responses.”

“We’re kind of into small everything. Since we are so acting-focused and acting-based, we tend to more small and intimate shows,” Amelia said.

“The nature of this show in particular is that we know we’re doing a play, you know we’re doing a play, we’re not trying to convince you that it’s really occurring. That would be crazy. The aesthetic is considered, but we’re more about function than form,” Kevin said.

So what do they hope to achieve by presenting a somewhat confrontational play about race?

“To further a discourse that lies dormant in everyone’s art–it’s not discussed as much as it could be. LaBute said a lot of people are angry after the show. It’s a topic you should be angry about. My hope is that it would help create a discourse about this issue in a new way,” Kevin said.

“We’re not telling people what to think,” Amelia said.

“We’re just exploring the difficult aspects of theater–we’re passing the buck, basically,” laughed Kevin. “We don’t want to manipulate the audience into feeling a certain way–we want to let the play be what it is.”

This is How It Goes opens tonight at 8:00 pm, and also runs September 4, 6 through 9, and 11 at Always by Design Gallery, 265 S. 10th Street, Center City. Times vary, $15.

–Nicholas Gilewicz

Photos courtesy Room6Theatre.