The race is on
"OK, so this is how it goes...or went," says the protagonist of This Is How It Goes, a character simply credited as "Man." Yes, by naming him Man, playwright Neil LaBute is making him the every man, representing us in this story of reunion, betrayal, sex, divorce, and race relations. Ah, these are the days of our lives.
Man is a guy who doesn't know exactly what he knows. He's telling the audience the story of his reunion with a high school crush, but he can't seem to get the details straight. The truth is in the story somewhere, but Man's skewed memory, biased point of view, or wishful thinking cloud it. In the end, it's left to the audience to search out the truth; "Decide for yourselves how much is real," instructs Man.
So, this is how it goes --- the plot, that is: Man runs into Belinda, a girl with whom he's been madly in lust since high school. She's everything he remembers. And, with batting eyes, lingering glances, and accidental touches, there is obvious flirtation.
Man has just moved back to his hometown after leaving his life as a lawyer. Belinda is looking to rent out her garage apartment. The perfect coincidence. The only unfortunate part for Man --- the nerdy, fat kid in high school --- is that Belinda, the preppy, peppy little cheerleader, married his nemesis, Cody, the popular jock. It's when the two men become reacquainted that the drama takes off.
Discussions of race relations are rarely comfortable. The threat of being labeled racist hangs overhead, and the pressure to be politically correct is almost crushing. But Man seems untouched by these concerns. He approaches the subject head-on and with what he believes to be humor. Although he claims to be "joking" each time a racist remark spews forth from his lips, Man can't seem to help himself.
Because Man's view shapes the perspective of the play, Cody, a successful black businessman and husband to the woman Man desires, becomes the antagonist. Man understands Cody not as a person, but as a stereotype, the angry black man. Man claims that Cody is constantly pulling the "ace of spades," the race card, in order to excuse shortcomings or gain advantage. As a result, Man takes twisted pleasure in taunting Cody with epithets. You have to wonder why Cody, an athletic and aggressive man, wouldn't beat the mother-lovin' crap out of this scrawny white boy each time Man opens his bigoted mouth. The question is definitively answered as the plot unfurls.
The frankness with which race is dealt will make some audience members uncomfortable, almost to the point of squirming. Playwright Neil LaBute has chosen not to shy away from the many levels of racism, ranging from the "harmless" joke that may be passed between co-workers at the water cooler to full-blown hate speech.
Mark D'Annunzio as Man creates a character that is, strangely enough, likeable while at the same time despicable. As Belinda, Kara Infantolino successfully fulfills the role of the once high school hottie transformed into a desperate housewife. In their first interaction, D'Annunzio and Infantolino are believably awkward, purposefully running over each other's lines and shuffling uncomfortably. However, when the duo interacts in sexually charged scenes, the chemistry falls flat.
B. Anthony Gibson as Cody also creates a dual-natured character, both attractive and repulsive. The proud varsity athlete still exists in Cody, but his disenchantment has spread to every aspect of life. In certain scenes, the tension Gibson portrays is palpable.
The set is sparse, and the choice is a good one. There is no distraction from the issues that should be central in the audience's mind. Director Barbara K. Biddy has taken full advantage of the words that LaBute has given her.
While Man is the narrator, the character who shapes and orders the universe of the play, he is not the champion --- just as Cody is not the antagonist. In the end, the audience will walk out understanding each character as a real, flawed human who is both hero and villain.
This is How It Goes, through October 15 | Shipping Dock Theatre, 31 Prince Street | Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays 2 p.m. | $12-$22 | 232-2250, www.shippingdocktheatre.org.