Cedar City • Neil LaBute’s play “How to Fight Loneliness,” which just opened a world premiere run at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, is the kind of contemporary play I love to argue about.
This well-paced production offers sharp, layered acting in an intense drama about a couple dealing with life-and-death issues. Jodie (Tessa Auberjonois) and Brad (Brian Vaughn) invite an acquaintance, Tate (Corey Jones), to help them solve an unsolvable problem after her brain cancer recurs.
“Loneliness” exhibits many of LaBute’s familiar trademarks: pitch-black humor, interrupted dialogue, awkward pauses and caustic accusations. There’s the poetry of adult language, too, particularly in the last scene packed with the fireworks of f-bombs. The story, interestingly, offers another way to consider the rights a woman has to make decisions about her own body.
For all the life-and-death importance of the play’s ideas, though, “Loneliness” has serious script problems. David Ivers’ taut direction and resourceful blocking on the thrust stage can’t overcome the story’s flaws.
The play’s three scenes develop different stories that don’t add up, while plot points, even props, seem contrived. In an iPhone era, details seem unanchored: Wristwatches? A flip phone? A CD Walkman?
Such details might be small quibbles, except they’re indicative of how the characters keep talking but never seem emotionally believable. The plot’s contrivances rely on shock value, although the subject of assisted suicide is less provocative than it might have been, say, 20 years ago. I assume some Utah theatergoers might find the language offensive, but to me it quickly became only tiresome, like the two men’s inevitable, but unlikely, fight scene.
In the first act, Vaughn and Auberjonois bicker with abandon, their anxious gestures richly conveying a married couple’s irritability. When Tate arrives, Jones showcases his persnickety tastes, making tangible the tension of the conversation’s subtext. At the end of the scene, Vaughn’s explosive outburst offers a dramatic exclamation point.
Tate is the play’s most realized character, thanks to his belief in his moral choices, no matter how skewed they might seem to others. The writing is aided by Jones’ mesmerizing full-throated and full-bodied performance. In the last act, the actor offers a master class in how to deliver silence. And the contrast in the way Jones physically anchors Jodie in the second scene and her distraught husband in the final scene is a fascinating visual echo.
Jodie’s character is rooted in an interesting notion, that of a woman who becomes braver intellectually while her body is failing, but onstage she has a lot of fraught dialogue and not much else to do. Brad is the most problematic: Is the character a sardonic asshole? Or a good guy whose repeated expressions of love create a blind spot big enough to drive a three-act play through?
Script issues aside, I applaud USF’s ambitious choice to use its new studio theater to develop “the Shakespeares of tomorrow,” as USF founder Fred Adams tells it. On opening night, it was a pleasure to have LaBute and his mentor, former Brigham Young University professor Chuck Metten, in the audience. Showcasing a LaBute play is a fitting (and long-overdue) Utah homecoming for the nationally prominent dramatic provocateur who crafted early scripts while studying theater at BYU in the 1990s.
The dramatic idea I keep thinking about is the time bomb buried in the third act, about the desperate measures a lonely man might take, even if that’s not the story the first two acts have built to. Still, “How to Fight Loneliness” raises the kinds of questions that keep me returning to the community of a dark theater to hear new stories.
’How to Fight Loneliness’
Taut direction and crackling acting can’t solve script problems in world-premiere production of Neil LaBute’s new play.
Where • Utah Shakespeare Festival’s Anes Theatre, 101 W. University Blvd., Cedar City
When • Reviewed Saturday, Aug. 26; plays through Oct. 14
Tickets • $50-$54; bard.org/tickets
Running time• 1 hour and 45 minutes; no intermission