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This is How it Goes

This Is How It Goes  is Neil LaBute’s best play to date.  All the defining qualities of this writer are here: dialogue that is not realistic, but sharpened to seem so, a plot that takes you through twists and turns to an end that surprises, and characters with whom you might sympathize and even trust – until their behavior prevents your doing so.  And LaBute takes ninety minutes to transport the audience on this emotional, unforgettable journey. You leave the theater, after one final twist, convinced of John Lahr’s view in The New Yorker that “There is no one on the planet these days who is writing better than Neil LaBute.”

The three characters are played by Ben Chaplin, identified simply as “Man” because he changes so often, as does our opinion of him.  He is the narrator, a likeable young man, casually dressed, who returns to his small hometown, and who is so engaging that we immediately begin to trust him, or should we?  He tells us himself that he may not be recalling the story exactly, so that we are viewing the action from his point of view – until the two other players in the story seem to emerge from the narrative on their own.  The set by Tim Hatley could not be more simple – a neon phrase lights up in a page that begins “This is how it goes,” listing the settings to tell us where the action is at the moment: “back of the house” for instance, when Man and Belinda (Megan Dodds) have their first physical encounter as she touches him.

Twelve years earlier, Chaplin, Dodds, and her husband Cody (Idris Elba) were students at the town’s high school, where Cody, who is black, was a star athlete and Chaplin a fat nerd.  He has since, he reveals when questioned by Cody, gone to law school and become a lawyer.  (Later he confesses the company fired him for a racist remark.)  Returning to his hometown and encountering Belinda, whom he loved from afar in high school, he rents a room above the married pair’s garage.

She tells him she married Cody, now a rich businessman, “to be noticed, ” and enjoyed the satisfaction of being seen with him.  But we soon become aware of the friction in the marriage.  As amiable as ever, and confessing that “the truth is just so …elusive,  Man gives us two versions of a particular encounter between Belinda and Cody, reminding us that “I wasn’t there.”  In both sequences Cody is uptight and aggressive, even striking his wife in one version. And not only is he is unfaithful, but has been, since he and Belinda were dating.  In high school, when the boys were trading baseball cards, Cody seemed to value his Jackie Robinson card more than Belinda, according to Man.

 What could be more traditional family-life than a barbecue?  In this setting, Cody’s resentment of the attraction between Belinda and their tenant reaches boiling point; and some of the racist undertones surface in Man’s heretofore polite avoidance of such implications.  The audience gasps at these – but they are only a prelude, as LaBute begins to drive home the revelation that even educated white people who know better may harbor such thoughts.

References to “Othello,  (Belinda claims “Iago was the jealous one”), “Strangers on a Train,” and The Mayor of Casterbridge hint at the resolution, which will not be revealed here.  Suffice it to say there is more audience gasping when Man delivers an impassioned final soliloquy.   And, according to him, he and Belinda marry and live happily ever after.

This play’s impact would not be as strong as it is without the three fine actors who make up the triangle --  Ben Chaplin as the charming, amiable narrator (but can we trust what he says?), Megan Dodds as the beautiful wife who bears her husband’s insults as long as she can, and realizes too late that, lacking self-esteem, she was dazzled by his riches and his glamour, and Idris Elba as Cody, whose veneer of confidence begins to crack, although he gives as good as he gets, clicking his fingers and ordering about others, including Man, who becomes his lawn boy.  Moises Kaufman, one feels, is exactly the right director for this impressive work.