In Paragon Theatre's This Is How It Goes, there's less than meets the eye

The man onstage (the character is actually called Man) begins by telling us he's an unreliable narrator, and goes on to prove it in scene after scene. He tells a story about how he ran into Belinda, the girl he loved in high school twelve years earlier — or perhaps it was ten — when he was a fat, lonely kid, and how he's wormed his way back into Belinda's life by renting a room over the garage of the house she shares with her handsome, wealthy, athletic black husband, Cody. When we meet Cody, we find out he's a boor who jeeringly reminisces about Man's hopeless high school years, mercilessly interrogates him about his present life and also hits Belinda. Except that maybe he isn't and maybe he doesn't.

The essential problem with Neil LaBute's This Is How It Goes is that you understand early on that the truth will never be revealed and that every word and action you witness is probably inauthentic. Cody and Belinda often seem to be acting out the most banal stereotypes: wife-beater, aging athlete, jealous spouse. Over time, you do figure out that Man, who at first seemed so honest and ingratiating, is a nasty piece of work, sexist, racist and self-absorbed to the core. What we'll never know is whether Belinda, who at one point refers contemptuously to her husband's "dark fingers," is racist, too, or whether Man, who's openly orchestrating the entire play, put those two words into her mouth. We'll also never find out if Cody deliberately uses his blackness to his advantage ("He'd play that card every now and then," Man says, "the old ace of spades"), mocks gay people, calls his wife a cunt.

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Presented by Paragon Theatre through August 16, Denver's Crossroads Theater, 2590 Washington Street, 303-300-2210, www.paragontheatre.org.

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All we do know for sure is that the story we're being told by a squirrelly, manipulative little guy is full of the kinds of taboos that people don't usually breach in polite society. On the night I attended this Paragon production, a young black woman walked out of the auditorium after about the third or fourth "spade" — an epithet that had been preceded by "coon" and was eventually followed by the "n-word."

LaBute has made a career out of telling us how cringe-makingly awful his cohort of middle-class white males is, and Man is no exception. This guy is such a creep that one of the reasons he left his wife and has had no contact with her since is that their child is a girl. The two fruits of Cody's loins are male, of course, though the six-year-old already hates his mother. Or so she says. Belinda's pretty much a cipher throughout, though the final scene suggests that if the men have been engaged in a cruel set of manipulations against her, she might have been fully aware of it and perhaps even used it for her own ends.

As presented in London and New York, This Is How It Goes ran only ninety minutes, and that seems about right for the amount of wit and insight it contains. The Paragon version goes on for two and a half long hours with no intermission, and the shock value of all the name-calling diminishes as the insults repeat. (And no, I didn't find myself searching my own soul for leftover fragments of racism, as perhaps the playwright intended, because I was pretty sure that even if some ugly little worms still wiggle around in there, there's nothing as noxious and revolting as the stuff in Man's psyche. Nor did the play remind me of how prevalent and all-pervasive racism remains in this country: That's something I figured out eons ago.)

Besides the length, there are a couple more flaws in Warren Sherrill's otherwise exemplary direction of this play. Sometimes the actors' voices get so naturalistically soft that you can't hear the dialogue. And if Cody and Belinda's youngest is supposed to be two, his offstage crying shouldn't sound like the whimpering of a newborn. (It's not Sherrill's fault that LaBute's script has this fictive child napping at 8:30 in the morning while his mother reads and sips soda, a sequence that surely arouses inward snickers in every parent in the audience. Or that Belinda, who married Cody in part because of his standing in society, shops at Wal-Mart.)

The performances are uniformly good. Scott McLean's Man has a jovial exterior, but there's something really ugly in the corners of his smile. Tyee Tilghman is an alternately menacing and dignified Cody, and Emily Paton Davies holds her own as Belinda. Still, despite the script's limitations, I wondered if Tilghman and Davies couldn't have found some way of making their characters more three-dimensional. Watching a play in which you feel so distanced from the protagonists is a bit like looking into a lighted box at the zoo insectarium — you're so detached you don't care who'll end up devouring whom.

 
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