One of the most fascinating pieces of watching a play at Berkeley’s intimate Aurora Theatre is the fact that while the show goes on, you can see the audience react while not losing focus on the action. And in a play as explosive and uncomfortable, and funny mind you, as Neil LaBute’s “This is How it Goes,” the audience was often just as compelling as the stellar cast.
The story is led by its narrator, known simply as Man (Gabriel Marin). Man is an affable sort, a self-deprecating gentleman who engages in a conversation with not-so-distant crush Woman (Carrie Paff). They chat and share some laughs, as well as multiple painfully awkward hugs. And they begin to make some plans for future interactions (dates?). Man has returned to the small town he grew up in for reasons not initially revealed. All we know is he is a former lawyer, former husband, and soon to be current tenant above Woman’s garage.
What gums up the works is Woman’s domineering husband Cody (Aldo Billingslea). He’s an interesting guy, a former stud track athlete in high school, one who immediately casts a pall on anything that resembles fun. There’s a town festival with a seemingly racist vendor who never seems to hear his pleas for lemonade, a barbecue, a visit to the mall. All of these occasions are just a way for Cody to remind his wife who wears the pants, shirts and loud sweat suits in the family.
Artistic Director Tom Ross’ direction is delicately fluid on a set that is somewhat confounding, and LaBute’s work is extremely rich in its nuance. LaBute is a master of conversation, and in this piece, certainly used Man’s relationship to the audience to soften what are some discomforting and shocking revelations. The presentational style of the play and Marin’s good-natured charm helped to navigate some most uncomfortable moments.
What certainly helps the chemistry is a cast that has worked together on another emotionally driven comedy/drama, Allison Moore’s powerful “Collapse.” While Marin had a tough job, having to act within two styles and was mostly successful, Billingslea’s and Paff’s presence were deliciously masterful and textured. In a role such as Cody, where the mere presence of the man had to completely change the air in the room, Billingslea’s hulking demeanor did just that.
Paff is a gem of Bay Area stages, whom I first saw as seductive siren Phyllis in San Jose Repertory Theatre’s “Double Indemnity” back in January of 2012. As an admitted sucker for actor’s who are brilliant listeners, Paff’s vast talents are on full display. When Cody rails on towards Woman about the pressures he is feeling in his marriage, in being a Black man in a White town, notice how every reaction that Paff expresses comes directly from what Billingslea gives her to work with. The ease that Man provides towards Woman gives Paff an opportunity to really texturize a character in a joyous way, yet Cody’s tension leads to a more demeaning and stifling reality.
Certainly, the fact that the jovial, wise-cracking, not-so-reliable Man all of a sudden is getting Woman to smile a whole lot doesn’t sit well with Cody. And there is certainly an opportunity for Woman to find a happiness and fascination in the old high school buddy that she has lost within Cody. Yet, where the play goes next is classic LaBute, who drops a histrionic bomb, which left many in the audience picking up their proverbial jaws from the floor. Issues of race are complicated, and racism is ugly, especially the kind that slips off the tongue as easily as saying “please” or “thank you.”
LaBute’s play has certainly raised the hackles of theatregoers, and my neighbor for the evening shared a story she heard in regards to a patron yelling at the actors during the show before walking out. She pointed out that after the episode ended, the cast checked to see if the audience wanted them to continue, which was met with a strong response in the affirmative.
In the wake of some extremely discomforting modern episodes of racism, LaBute’s play does what theatre
should – holds up a mirror to our society for us to see what is beautiful and ugly about ourselves. The parallels of what is happening now with the Trayvon Martin trial or the fall of the House of Deen is a fascinating backdrop for this aptly titled piece of theatre. While the audience most certainly was uncomfortable, sometimes in the theatre, that’s the way it has to go.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Aurora Theatre Company presents “This is How it Goes”
Written by Neil LaBute
Directed by Tom Ross
The Word: A talented trio tell this complicated story that angers and amuses.
Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission
Stars: 3.5 out of 4
Through July 28th
The Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison St., Berkeley CA 94704
Tickets range from $32 – $50
For tickets, call (510) 843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org