Cruel Intentions

Filmmaker/Playwright Neil Labute Exposes the Innards of Everyday Evil in 'Bash.'

Bash: Latterday Plays, by Neil Labute (Overlook Press). Paper, $12.

IN TODAY'S SHOCK-O-RAMA society, it has become increasingly difficult for artists to create disturbing statements about our cultural corrosion. With even the vilest human atrocities splayed open for public consumption on daytime television, the shock-bar has been raised for artists, who have to scramble to outdo your dysfunctional next-door neighbors and their 15 minutes of fame.

Enter twisted playwright/filmmaker Neil Labute, best known for his controversial film In the Company of Men. He has aced this challenge in his darkly disturbing play Bash, which may well describe the sensation felt by readers after immersing themselves in this bruising, and often shocking, trio of vignettes devoted to the seething evil lurking beneath the placid exterior of "averageness."

Closely scrutinized by the media during its initial staging late last year due to the incongruous presence of Ally McBeal star Calista Flockhart, Bash scratches a chilling portrait of dead-eyed evil onto the page, fueled by a blunt monologue structure and abrasively confrontational dialogue.

In "Iphigenia in Orem," a harried, white-collar drone spills his guts to a bar pick-up, slowly revealing the horrifying act he has committed in the name of keeping up with the Joneses. In "Gaggle of Saints," a young, wealthy college couple recount their "fun" evening of dining, dancing and blood-splattered gay bashing in New York City. Finally, in "Medea Redux," a woman from the wrong side of the tracks recalls the violent act of desperation triggered by her abuse by a trusted high school teacher.

Throughout, the matter-of-fact remorselessness displayed by Labute's tortured denizens makes their monstrous deeds all the more horrifying because it offers readers no easy emotional catharsis--these faces of evil are bland, indeed.

Within each act of his malevolent triptych, Labute uses a three-part narrative structure, beginning with jittery calm, followed by mounting dread, concluding with a shocking gut-punch. While this repetitive pattern loses some of its power by the third act, it gives the work a hypnotically droning quality that effectively mirrors the deadened psyches of its characters.

What emerges is a squirmy exposé of the many ways a repressive society can turn "good" people "bad," and how emotional desperation can corrode even the purest of hearts. Labute, himself a devout Mormon, courts outrage by making all of his soulless characters Latter-Day-Saints, and much of Bash's power comes from this prickly dichotomy between organized religion and the inherent human capacity for evil. While the play's savage violence creates a gruesomely fascinating shell, it is the bruised mourning for a Godless world that forms its heart.

What ultimately saves Bash from becoming mere sensationalism is Labute's curious ability to create a world of wide-eyed misanthropy; he knows we've all gone to hell, but he doesn't want to believe it.

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