Playwright Neil LaBute’s exploration of relatable people struggling with themselves, as well as society’s expectations of them, finds another outlet in his latest play, The Break of Noon. It is Mr. LaBute’s ability to generate sympathy and head-shaking pity for even the most unlikable of characters that makes his work so intriguing. Although this latest piece falls short of his stronger works, The Break of Noon does provoke a great deal of thought on difficult search for redemption.
The play centers on John Smith, sole survivor of an office-shooting rampage. He’s a typical LaBute male — self-centered, inconsiderate, even cruel. Yet he is also the universal American male — an office manager stuck in a dead-end job, who cheats on his wife and amuses himself with nasty workplace pranks. He even exploits the tragedy with a photo taken from beneath a desk during the rampage, which earns him wealth and notoriety. He’s the kind of guy you’d care to know, although perhaps he’s not too far removed from any of us, either.
Following the shooting, John claims to have found Christ. Told to spread a message of goodness to the world, he vainly attempts to mend fences with his estranged wife and his mistress (his wife’s trashy sister), while defending himself against skepticism in the form of an irritating talk-show host, a lawyer who brokers the sale of his photo, and a police detective in search of a motive for the shooting.
Each scene dramatizes the struggle of an all-too-human man in search of redemption. He seems to fail at every turn. The reason is because, in all but one scene, John is really only interested in fixing things for himself whereas true redemption would come by demonstrating genuine altruistic compassion for others. John finally achieves this first step towards Grace in the play’s penultimate scene, one of the three strongest in the work. It is a powerful moment for both him and a role-playing prostitute, whose mother was killed in the shooting, and it leads beautifully into the play’s final scene. There, as he confesses details regarding his own indirect culpability in the tragedy, God’s grace is revealed in a most surprising manner.
Some reviewers have criticized the play’s content as being thin and familiar. The criticism has some validity — this isn’t Mr. LaBute’s best work — and yet the characters’ unvarnished attitudes propel the drama enough to maintain interest. The play recalls Mr. LaBute’s Fat Pig, in which a handsome office functionary dates an obese woman, finally finding someone with whom he can be himself, yet refusing to be seen in public with her. In contrast, however, the lead male in Fat Pig is so crippled by what others will think of him, and fearful of their ridicule, that he ends the relationship. Like Howard from In The Company of Men, he is revealed to be a spineless and pathetic individual, unable to cope with the courage of his convictions. In The Break of Noon, Mr. LaBute suggests that by sticking to one’s convictions — however tenuously held — salvation may be achieved. It is a long and difficult road that we will stumble down, but that’s part of the human experience.
Kevin Anderson brings the required Everyman quality to John. His best scene is the opening monologue, in which he recounts the horror inside the office while talking to police. It’s a gripping start to the play, with Mr. Anderson effectively bringing Mr. LaBute’s terrifying description of the incident to life. Catherine Dent (The Shield) offers a great dual-role portrayal of John’s wife and her sister, generating the appropriate sympathy, and skepticism, for John. Tracee Chimo is given a lightweight role as a talk-show host, but lowers the boom emotionally as the prostitute who comes to terms with her relationship with her murdered mother. And of course, we are treated to the always-reliable John Earl Jelks as a lawyer and Christian police detective.
For those in search of a thought-provoking drama, it’s hard to do worse than anything Mr. LaBute showcases. The Break of Noon is no exception.
The Break of Noon is at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood until March 6th.