Friday, November 25, 2005

REVIEW: Wrecks (Everyman Palace Theatre, Cork)

In the program for Wrecks, Neil Labute offers ten substantial reasons for preferring to work in the theatre to practicing the writer-director’s other sideline, creating Hollywood blockbusters. Some explanation is required, it seems, for opening his latest drama, a one man show, with Hollywood escapee, Ed Harris, at the helm, in Cork.

After a downright noisy first night in the city, LaBute may be inclined to add one in to the opposite column. At least in the cinema, members of the audience don’t get a chance to cough, splutter and hack while the actors are actually doing their work. For the opening night of Wrecks, however, a startling number of people – enough to convince the nervous that the pandemic has indeed kicked off – seemed to be exhibiting flu-like symptoms.

As it happens, Wrecks requires that Harris smoke, and talk about smoking, a great deal, which appeared to allow the actor to respond directly some particularly full-throated contributions. But it was also clear that it was near impossible for him to find his rhythms in the short piece, and begin building the delicate edifice of LaBute’s story. While Harris’ instantly recognisable skull looks striking enough to hold the stage all by itself, he seems non-plussed by the sonic insubordination.

Ironically, disease plays a crucial role in the story, which is told by a recently widowed mid-Western classic car enthusiast. We meet him as a funeral rite (an early hint of a Classical flavour to the evening) for his beloved Jojo, from which he has popped backstage to talk to us, his audience. Theirs was a great love, an April-September one to boot: an oasis of happiness in a hard life, for him an orphan and drifter. Sure, there were obstacles to overcome, like her pugnacious first husband. But once the incidentals are sorted, a life of particularly American happiness followed.

But now cancer has taken Jojo from him and he has a few last words to say, a few memories to share before he too succumbs to the disease. And, of course, this being a LaBute number, before that can happen, there is a truth nagging to be told, an Oedipal mist hanging over the narrative which must be acknowledged or dispersed, and a unsettling surprise awaiting us in the final movement.

It is, in fact, quite a simple play by LaBute’s standards. What is required of Harris is to draw us into the tale’s simplicity with the kind of easy naturalism for which his movie work suggests, he has a profound facility. But something here – and it seems to be the coughing, more than a certain fragility with his lines – is stymieing that pleasure which seemed guaranteed. The illusion is punctured so regularly that, even though the twist turns, the precision that would give the piece its emotional heft is missing.

Still, at least nobody’s mobile went off.


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