First published in The Times, Wednesday August 19 2015
Legend has it that when Neil LaBute’s debut play received its world premiere in New York in 1990, one unimpressed member of the audience shouted: “Kill the playwright!”
Twenty-five years on, UK audiences finally get a chance to see what all the fuss was about, thanks to this revival from the LA-based Phanton Owl theatre company. Yet, while the play still holds some interest for fans of LaBute’s observant writing and studied cynicism, Matthew Lillard’s production doesn’t do much to bring the dated material to life, or even highlight why it was once considered so controversial.
The playwright’s obsessions – alienation, group dynamics, the lack of empathy between men and women – are all here, both explicit and implicit in the play’s structure: a string of stand-alone monologues, delivered by four men and two women in an anonymous bar. Lillard (best-known as the actor who played Shaggy in the live action Scooby Doo films) specifically sets his production in a strip club (we’re greeted on arrival by a topless woman pole dancing) but then coyly refuses to do anything more with this backdrop than place his actors in it. The fact that the men are fully dressed and the women wear see-through underwear with cash stuffed in their stockings seems intended to titillate rather than accurately reflect what is in the play.
Pic: David Bennett
The bigger problem with Filthy Talk for Troubled Times, though, lies with the meandering, almost wilfully anti-dramatic script. There is no denying that, at their best, LaBute’s detached, uncritical observations can be chilling, but with a quarter century of politically incorrect drama and comedy behind us, this sophomoric effort has been eclipsed by better work, not least by LaBute himself.
A couple of the vignettes, including one in which a man recalls the terrible moment when he walked in on his father having sex with a neighbour, are bleakly poignant. Yet overall, the phallocentric talk in this play seems barely adequate for our troubled times.