Meet John Smith. He’s a man in a Neil LaBute play, so yeah, he’s a selfish, womanizing asshole. Or at least he used to be. That was all before he was the lone survivor in a horrific lunchtime workplace massacre that left 37 of his office mates dead. According to John, it was no less than the voice of God that saved him from the wrath of the disgruntled ex-employee shooter. Not only did it save him physically, but the unexpected divine intervention worked miracles on John’s sinner soul as well, turning him into a believer striving to spread the word of the Almighty.
Known for his provocative and misanthropic examinations of the dark side of modern-day life (think racism, sexism, homophobia and other thematic vehicles that illustrate the savage brutishness of mankind), LaBute takes on religion, reformation and the motives of a modern-day prophet in his 2010 play Break of Noon. Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.
Do we believe John? That’s the question LaBute wants us to wrestle with for two acts. Is he truly now a God-fearing man desperate to save others, or is he the kind of unsavory sinner who seeks fame and redemption out of the ashes of tragedy? Director Trevor B. Cone's unsuitably toned production unfortunately throws all kinds of performance problems in the way of any real discussion of the question.
We first encounter John (a confusingly mild-mannered Kevin Daugherty) alone on a mostly bare stage as he recounts the massacre to an unseen police officer. “He slit her throat,” John whines, describing how the shooter cold-heartedly killed a co-worker attempting to play dead to avoid being shot. Listening to LaBute’s chilling description of a gunman killing frightened and frenzied victims trapped in place can’t help putting us in mind of recent events in Paris. Is what John is describing anything like what those trapped in the concert hall experienced? Is this what they were thinking? It’s a terrifically strong opening made even more relevant by the events we bring with us into the theater.
It’s a shame, then, that this cast can’t keep the momentum going.
The punch line of John’s police testimony is that just as the shooter (who John claims is a former employee he barely knew) was on his way to find him, a mellifluous, deep voice appeared out of nowhere telling John, “Stay in place and you shall be safe.” When faced with the disbelief of the officer who questions the holy help, John counters by asserting that there is simply no other reason he’d be the only one to make it out alive.
It’s the same reasoning John gives his lawyer (a tiresome, stereotypically amoral character played with hackneyed stiffness by Kurt Bauer) when seeking guidance over a photograph of the killer and blood-soaked victims he managed to snap with his phone in the chaos. The photo and the religious revelation are declared a gold mine by the lawyer, who foresees John making a small fortune selling both the snapshot and the story. Not that John wants fame, or money, really. Well, maybe just a bit (or more) of both. And then only so that he can help members of his family and fund his preaching.
But despite his supposed enlightenment, increasingly larger plans for his new role as prophet and a story about seeing God that gets grander with every retelling, John’s old, nasty ways keep seeping through. Or they would if Daugherty had an ounce of nastiness to him. Sounding like a soft-spoken NPR announcer with all the pizzazz of adult easy listening, Daugherty more resembles a slouching, nerdy nobody than a man capable of such bad behavior.
When his ex-wife Ginger (an uncommitted Hessed Honstein) accuses him of frightening her with his temper, we scratch our heads trying to imagine this. When disparaging talk show host Jenny (an overly broad Bailey Hampton, sounding like Julia Child) challenges the seriousness of his faith, we have a hard time buying his temper-tantrum exit off the live set. A not so platonic encounter with his former mistress, Jesse (Honstein, awkward in her tacky bad-girlness) is laughable due to the lack of chemistry and our disbelief that Daugherty’s John could even be capable of having sex. A neutered performance continues to be the issue when John visits prostitute Gigi (Hampton overreaching again) to, among other things, see if he is still tempted to pay for sex. When a cop (Bauer, unwittingly sounding like the worst cliché of a B-movie cop you can imagine) questions John’s version of the shooting and his relationship to the killer, Daugherty barely musters the rage that should come with his cornered fear. Not even the ample expletive-ridden script LaBute provides for John helps us buy this performance as bad boy turned potentially good.
Without this tension, what then are we left with? On the upside, while this is by no means LaBute’s most complex or searing examination, there are moments of dialogue that hit nails on heads so expertly that we can’t help tingling a little. Upon learning the ex-employee shooter was of Honduran origin, the Lawyer gleefully exclaims, “That’s great. We can use that! He’s not one of us. People like it when the crazies come from another country.” Equally as resonant is Jenny’s explanation of why she and her TV audience are at odds with his prophet claims. “We hate it,” Jenny says of God’s talking to him. “We want to believe but we don’t want to believe in you – you being anyone we know.” In questioning John’s faith on the basis of his lack of reckless behavior, the cop asserts, “Folks who hear God do the stupidest things in the world!”
Behind moments of "oooh, that’s a good line" dialogue lies the downside of what’s left projected onto a scrim and piped though speakers. Animating the blackout scene changes are darkly throbbing techno beats (Cone doubling as sound designer) and various pulsing graphic kaleidoscope-like images (courtesy of Barbara Alicea-Aponte) that feel utterly incongruous with the action onstage. Yes, there is a mystery to solve here (what really happened at the shooting, why was John spared and is his faith simply a ploy?), but the ominous sound track and meaningless images do nothing to bring much-needed tautness or intrigue to this missed-opportunity staging.
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There is some redemption to be had for this production in the compelling and well-executed final scene. Standing alone once again but delivering an altogether different kind of monologue in an altogether different location, John finally reveals what he knows about the shooter and exactly how he came to be saved. This is a LaBute play, so there are no spoilers in saying that it’s a far more sinister story than we’ve been led to believe. Here, Daugherty’s nice-guy persona is well suited to LaBute’s desire to upset. In these last moments, we need this kind of complaisance as an emotional foil to the in-your-face, politically incorrect darkness LaBute was after all along.
By seeing John for who he really is, our faith is either disgustedly shaken or strengthened depending on what side of the divide we sit on. Pity then that instead of allowing us to evolve our thought process from the play’s start to finish, this production only really captures our admiration at the start and then not again until the finish.
Break of Noon continues through December 6 at Queensbury Theatre, 12777 Queensbury Lane. For tickets visit queensburytheatre.org or call 713-467-4497. $22 – 35.