Hard to like, impossible to discount. Neil LaBute delivers another of his exquisitely sordid insights into the damaged terrain of the privileged bourgeoisie with his new melodrama, In a Forest Dark and Deep. The setting is a small house near an American university. College lecturer Betty is being helped by her trailer-trash brother Bobby to clear out the detritus left by a departing tenant. LaBute’s storyline adheres very strictly to the timetable laid down by screenplay seminars: every 20 minutes a new revelation flips the plot entirely on its head. This tick-tock regularity gives the play an unwelcome air of artifice.
First we learn that Betty is more a sugar mummy than a landlady to her absent tenant. Then we discover that her marriage is in ruins and her cheating husband has no idea about her love cranny in the woods. The remaining revelations concern her departed lover, and the final twist is entirely predictable because by that stage the play has touched the bottom rung of depravity and has nowhere else to go.
As always, LaBute’s characters fall into two classes of creative accomplishment. His men are effortless, his women look like an acquired skill. Bobby is a straight-A dropout, all clenched athleticism and embittered eloquence, who prowls the stage delivering savage homilies on the woes of Africa, the messianic delusions of Bono and the prissy affectations of academics. Betty is a more monochrome figure, a beautiful well-read prig whose campus refinement conceals a dark hinterland of lust, jealousy and worse. Her serial lying and her nymphomania feel a tad fortuitous, not so much a function of her personality as a pretext for the author to fashion a first-rate thriller from modest materials.
Olivia Williams makes a stylishly sexy Betty while Matthew Fox brings a sense of death-row menace and candour to Bobby.