Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Leap of Faith

February 04, 2011

Kevin Anderson in The Break of Noon
Photo: Michael Lamont/Geffen Playhouse 2011

Neil LaBute’s latest stage effort made its way West this week to the playwright’s L.A. stage of choice, the Geffen Playhouse. The Break of Noon, which debuted last Fall at The MCC Theater, arrived with two new cast members but the same director, Jo Bonney. And if it is anything, The Break of Noon is recognizable LaBute through and through complete with one very bad boy, female characters said bad boy uses to define himself, and the thorny relationships that ensue between them. The focus of the play, however—the origins of faith and its place in today’s world—is an unusual central theme for LaBute. That being said, though, his treatment of it is not entirely original. The central character, John Smith, we learn is the sole survivor of a horrendous mass murder. He gets religion, feeling he was saved after hearing the voice of God, and just as quickly obtains significant fame and fortune in part from a rather gruesome photo he shot of the killer and at least one bloody victim. The following 90 minutes deal with the aftermath of these events and Smith’s struggle to live up to the holy task he now believes he has been called to do. Of course, he turns out to be not quite as changed as he may have initially thought, and we soon see Smith dealing with some of his old, womanizing, cheating, and lying ways. But LaBute never lets the audience or Smith forget that Smith does in fact have a new-found faith that he wishes to spread and that there is sincerity in his urges to do good.

The old chestnut of the troubled and perhaps disingenuous man of faith doing some real good, however unintentionally, has populated more movies and plays than you may care to remember. But this is LaBute’s world, and despite the familiarity of the set up, nothing in the play sounds quite like your typical Hollywood film. Smith travels through eight scenes encountering four women and two men in between his long monologues that start and finish the piece. Each outsider challenges his new found perspective on life by recalling some of his not too pleasant past in different ways. Each outsider appears only once before moving on, but all contribute to a building narrative along the way. The cast is quite good including Kevin Anderson in the title role alongside Catherine Dent, Tracee Chimo, and John Earl Jelks. (The latter two appeared in the New York run of the play.) LaBute’s biting view on male-female relationships is again on display as Smith meets up with his ex-wife, ex-mistress, and a prostitute. But these interactions are always more about him than the women. All the scenes are sharply written with smart dialog except for a TV interview segment that reads more like one of those unfunny sketches that populates the last 10 minutes of a Saturday Night Live broadcast. There is a fair amount of humor in the play, though it often seemed a little hard to decipher in The Break of Noon, considering some of the material that immediately surrounds it. Still, it’s a good effort and highlights many of the best qualities of LaBute’s writing. It may not be new, but you could do worse than simply being familiar. It continues at the Geffen Playhouse through March 6.

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