Neil LaBute is hard to like but easy to admire. So goes conventional wisdom on the subject of one of America’s most verbally violent playwrights. It’s a shame, therefore, that in this new tale of Hansel and Gretel grown up and gone wrong, there’s still plenty to discomfort but little to impress. Fortunately, Hollywood stars Matthew Fox (Lost) and Olivia Williams (Rushmore, The Sixth Sense) lend real wit and power to LaBute’s depiction of sibling warfare. In their capable hands, LaBute’s rehash of clichés about the opposition of educated woman to working class man becomes highly entertaining, if never quite enjoyable.
LaBute seems to delight in the role of macho moralist. Taken together, his oeuvre reads as a crusade against mankind’s (or more often, womankind’s) drive to manipulate its fellow man. Thus he holds up for our judgment Evelyn, the artist in The Shape of Things who “reshapes” her boyfriend merely to present him as her art project, or Cody, at the centre of This Is How It Goes, who may or may not be paying another man to seduce his wife and smooth the path to divorce. In plays like Bash and In The Company of Men LaBute borrows the tricks of a Puritan martyrologist, drawing his audience in with titillating tales of cruelty, only for the authorial voice suddenly to chime in, censuring them for their own hypocrisy, exposing the extent to which their own voyeurism has corrupted them.
In this latest play, Bobby, anti-intellectual, down to earth, bitter and openly hateful of women after multiple failed marriages (he denies his domestic-abuse was a factor), becomes the cipher for LaBute’s rage against deceit. Happy to hit a woman, but never to cheat on her, he preaches like an unshakable moral fog-horn. Bobby starts the play by ranting against “icy bitches” who manipulate men, and by the end of it has torn apart his sister’s shifting web of lies to expose her as just like all the rest of them. That’s giving away little away about the plot that isn’t predictable in the first few minutes - the real question is not if Betty hiding something, but what she’s hiding.
LaBute goes to some effort to make Bobby seem unreliable : at the play’s opening he expresses his distaste for literature and art in general, before declaring that a man who reads The New Yorker must be gay. Hardly the type of man the decorated New York literatus Neil Labute would chose as a font of truth, one might think. A playwright might be more likely to side with Betty, who has escaped Bobby and the rest of her no-frills family to become an East Coast college professor. But as Betty is revealed as the devious witch at the heart of her gingerbread house, it becomes increasingly hard to maintain the pretence that this play is an even-handed study of two equally flawed characters. Betty becomes the perfect justification for Bobby’s misogyny. And it is this which makes In A Forest, Dark and Deep very uncomfortable viewing indeed.
Confronted by such a contradictory character as Bobby, Matthew Fox is outstanding, striking just the right balance between eloquence and impotence. His is a dangerous, energetic physicality, proving that he can command an empty stage as compellingly as he can the more controlled confines of a television screen. Having started her career with three years at the RSC, Olivia Williams has less need to earn her acting chops, but she too gives a performance to be proud of, even if her American accent is occasionally a little hard to place. Both revel in LaBute’s dark humour, trading one-liners with perfect comic timing.
If nothing else, this production will have audiences erupting in nervous laughter. But if a sense of disquiet lurks beneath, it’s because In A Forest, Dark and Deep is a profoundly unpleasant play.
In A Forest, Dark and Deep, Vaudeville Theatre, Until 4 June