It's a rare pleasure to have a fully satisfying theater experience, and worth celebrating when it happens. Last night, Ellie and I went to see Ed Harris in Wrecks in the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse--a short, 80-minute, one-person performance written and directed by Neil LaBute, the screenwriter and director best known, perhaps, for his movie, In the Company of Men, a brutally honest exploration into the male psyche and current cultural attitudes about masculinity.
"Wrecks" could be seen as falling into that same category. At one level, at least, it's a sometimes humorous, sometimes painful study of the workings of its protagonist's mind. With a simple set--a funeral parlor, a coffin, a couple of plush benches, a couple of potted plants that double as ashtrays for the constantly smoking Edward Carr, played by Ed Harris--this performance is perhaps more a story-telling event than conventional theater. The dramatic conflict exists only in the mind of the narrator, and it's his monologue that keeps us engaged from the opening words to the shocking end.
Given this set-up, much depends on the actor's skill to hold the attention of the audience, and Ed Harris is pitch perfect, delivering a bravura performance that rivets us from beginning to end. Alternately cynical and ingratiating, intense and casual, Carr speaks a language that makes up in self-deprecation what it lacks in eloquence. He tells his story without frills, sometimes with feigned honesty, sometimes with transparent self-deception, sometimes with seemingly genuine emotion. He rambles, prevaricates, deflects, and sidesteps neatly when he feels he's getting too close to the bone. It takes him 78 of the 80 minutes to get to the point.
Ed Harris masters not only the words but the body language of this complex character who dodges in and out of his theme with the dexterity of a bantamweight boxer. Light on his feet, quick with his facial expressions and gestures, lithe with his body, this actor is in constant motion on the stage, providing the needed "dramatic action" where there is none. And what makes for the success of his work is not only the playing of the role, it's the relationship he establishes with the audience. A part of this is written into the script: it's understood that the protagonist, Carr, is addressing us directly. A big part of it is the way in which Harris himself creates a sense of intimacy, sharing confidences with his audience as though with the closest of friends. He is helped in this, by the way, by the delightful intimacy of this tiny black-box theater, where every seat is close to the stage and the actor is virtually a part of the audience himself.
I can't tell you the "story"--nor even any part of it, since it builds from the first moment with a kind of inexorable singularity of purpose--except to say that what we see is a man beside the coffin of his wife, telling the story of their life together. If that doesn't sound like much, it isn't. Except that it is. LaBute deserves great credit for the skill with which he builds from the first casual asides to the final revelation which lets us know, in the last moments of the play, just exactly what the thing was all about. If this sounds manipulative, I can only say that it doesn't feel that way. It feels, as I started out by saying, like a fully satisfying evening of theater. (And short! Who said that every play and every movie had to last two hours...? Short is good. Short essays are good. Short reviews are good. Bottom line: see it, if you possibly can.)