The premise is relatively simple: A self-proclaimed unreliable narrator tells the audience how “it goes”, with convenient help from a couple of other characters who serve as his puppets and act out a story of a love triangle in small-town America. Where Neil La Bute’s 2005 This is How It Goes gets complicated is in its portrayal of racism and the human condition. In a new production at the English Theatre Berlin directed by Brian Bell, La Bute’s work continues to amuse and offend, even as it offers more questions than answers and ultimately disappoints.
The twist in this triangle is that the married couple is mixed race and the interloping Man is white – a perfect set up for a number of conversations displaying early 21st century American race relations. And given the series of discussions this year regarding the representations of race and use of black face on the German stage, race in theatre is a relevant subject for exploration. The problem is that this particular work simply isn’t up to the task. It’s superficially about race, yes, but La Bute’s strength has always been in his scepticism toward humanity in general, regardless of skin colour.
La Bute loves theatrical manipulation just as much as he despises humanity, and the real focal point in this piece is his retelling of the same events in multiple versions of the truth, pulling the carpet out from under the audience’s trust again and again until no one is sure how it actually went. The problem with this theatrical device is that it makes the racism questions seem secondary; an uncomfortable position for a work intended to begin a series on racial identity on stage.
When La Bute’s work debuted at the Public Theater eight years ago, it starred Ben Stiller (as Man) and Amanda Peet (as Belinda Phipps), two excellent actors who still couldn’t carry the material beyond the first 30 minutes. The Berlin production runs into similar trouble. David Cassel (as Man) has the hardened charisma of a man who’s spent decades performing on the street and New Zealand-native Chlöe Lewer (as Belinda) has perfect comic timing – though her bobble-head portrayal lacks depth, possibly due to a slightly affected American accent. Louis DeVaugn Nelson (as Cody Phipps) has an excellent physical presence on stage (and several beefcake poses), but his light vocal style doesn’t match the more theatrical delivery of the other actors. The silent, dramatic and masked Waitress (beautifully executed by Sarah-Jane St.Clair) also comes across as a further disjointed piece in a world that can’t decide if it’s naturalistic or theatrical.
So even though the production has moments of brilliance, its attempt to dissect too many issues at once prevents it from gaining momentum and ultimately connecting to the audience. Since we’re already dealing with too many questions, here’s another thing to think about: one aspect of La Bute’s work present in this piece, but thankfully played down, is his tendency toward misogyny. His representation of women leads to questions of how his time in the Mormon Church might have influenced him, a relevant point during an election year in which the Republican candidate is also Mormon.
And while we’re at it, let’s add one more question to those already contained within the play: the English Theatre has been notified that it will not continue to receive funding due to lack of aesthetic innovation. Fair enough, the English Theatre serves as a museum for theatre from the English-speaking realm: it’s not about innovation; it’s about representation of these theatre traditions. The dialogue surrounding if and how the English Theatre should be funded (after all, the works that they present were often developed with private and not public funds, due the different systems in Britain and the States) promises to spark some insight into how Berlin’s performance scene works and just exactly how its residents want their tax money spent. This fundamental question of survival makes for an exciting, if unsettling, start to the English Theatre’s 2012-2013 season.
This Is How It Goes | Aug 15-28 daily (except Sundays) 20:00 | English Theatre Berlin, Fidicinstraße 40