Neil LaBute tackles religion in his new play

By Mark Kennedy

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Nov. 22 2010 6:12 p.m. MST

NEW YORK — Neil LaBute has done something quite different in his new play: He's created what basically amounts to a Rorschach test of faith.

In "The Break of Noon," which had its off-Broadway world premiere Monday night at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, David Duchovny stars as the sole survivor of a mass office shooting who is convinced he was spared the gunman's wrath by God.

Duchovny's character, John Smith, is not exactly the likeliest candidate for divine intervention: He has cheated on his wife with her cousin, played mean practical jokes and even admits he's been an overall unpleasant person. In that, he's a typical LaBute-ish anti-hero and the play has some terrific shards of dialogue.

Smith knows how insane it all sounds, but still feels the need to change his life and share the Word. He's a modern-day Saul. The trouble is, Smith is a weak fellow, still quick to anger, to swear and still attracted to flesh and money.

The duality of saint and sinner is reflected in the plays other characters — Amanda Peet, who plays both Smith's wife and his mistress; Tracee Chimo, who is a TV interviewer and a hooker; and John Earl Jelks, who portrays a lawyer on Smith's side and a suspicious detective.

To each of these characters, Smith discusses the shooting and its effects. But the story changes quite a bit each time he tells it, with different details emerging and different words spoken by God. The audience learns quickly that our hero is not a prophet — he's not even a reliable narrator.

Whether Smith even believes what he says is the play's central tension and a test for theatergoers. At least a part of Smith wants to cash in on his celebrity, seize the opportunity to change his sad life, and he holds back crucial elements of the shooting until the end.

Do you believe him? Or is he a crackpot? Says the despairing Smith: "How 'bout Noah? And Moses? Or Adam and goddamn Eve? Huh?! All of it's crazy! Every last guy in the belly of a whale is insane."

Lingering over all that is this question: Would you believe God's next prophet if he showed up today? After all, LaBute's John Smith is only a few syllables away from Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, and a religious community with which LaBute has had some past involvement.

"The Break of Noon," which is a co-production of the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, is LaBute's seventh collaboration with MCC Theater. Director Jo Bonney has an obvious comfort level with the playwright, having previously directed productions of his "Fat Pig" and "Some Girl(s)." This time, she seems to have toned down LaBute's more shocking side. In one scene, for example, the script calls for a sex act that the production has wisely covered over with a sheet.

Duchovny virtually never leaves the stage for 90 minutes and he tries hard to show that he's not just a TV and film actor. But those mediums have trained his expressions and voice to be small and he sometimes fails to connect Smith's inner turmoil to the back rows. That said, his two monologues that bookend the play are terrific.

The production's two actresses are terrific, especially Chimo, who layers her TV talk show host with fierce sarcasm and grandstanding. She returns to play a prostitute — who has her own connection to the shooting — with real emotion.

Peet proves her versatility and comfort with LaBute in her two roles. (She starred in his "This Is How It Goes" at the Public Theatre in 2005.) She plays both Smith's frustrated ex — in a gloriously written scene of a fight between former lovers — and his trashier, heavy eyeliner wearing mistress, one woman clipped and cold after years of pain, the other loud, needy and impetuous.

Neil Patel's effective sets spin on and off as if on a Lazy Susan and the seams of each of the eight scenes are punctuated by a burst of David Weiner's intense light, a nice touch in a story about God.

Or is it God?

Online:

http://www.mcctheater.org

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