This Is How It Goes
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 26, 2005
"...ok. This is how it goes," begins the Man on stage. "I mean, went. This is the way it all played out. Or, is going to... right now. Doesn't matter, you'll figure it out." Because the Man is played by Ben Stiller, we go along with his sly, goofy charm and let ourselves be disarmed. We realize that we'll probably be sorry later; that's one of the keys to playwright Neil LaBute's strategy in assaulting us in this slick, scary, and ultimately rather nasty and unsettling new play.
So, here's how it goes. The Man meets up with the girl—a young married woman, actually, whose name is Belinda—outside of Sears, in the same American small town where they both grew up. She doesn't remember him, at first; but he totally remembers her. He was a fat, geeky kid when they were high schoolers; she was (still is) pretty, popular. But she finds, as they chat, that she's glad to see him, and even pretends to remember the sort-of date he says they had a dozen years ago (he took her to a drive-in movie with a bunch of other kids). The upshot of the reunion is that Belinda makes another sort-of date to see him again, tomorrow in fact, at the strip mall.
He's been away for a long time—went to college, became a lawyer, married; now, for reasons he seems reluctant to divulge, he's back, no longer married, no longer a lawyer. She married what could be referred to as her high school sweetheart, Cody Phipps, who was a superstar back then and son of one of the richest guys in town. Cody is enormously successful now, too, with a seriously Type A disposition, as we'll see for ourselves when we meet him in the next scene.
Oh, yeah: Cody's black. We observe that our hero/narrator registers the teeniest bit of surprise when Belinda says she and Cody are married.
So, what happens next is, Belinda and Cody meet our narrator for lunch, where they talk about—among other things—the fact that he is going to move into the apartment over their garage that they've just finished remodeling. He's restarting his life, as a writer now, needs a place to stay; this is convenient. There's evident tension between him and Cody, but, despite that, Belinda seems happy about the arrangement.
Waiting for the waitress to take their order, our narrator lets slip the vaguest of racial epithets.
And so it goes. Man moves in, and moves in—slowly—on Belinda, as we expect; Belinda and Cody's relationship, meanwhile, strains and deteriorates. Too much of the trouble is revealed to be about race. Belinda married Cody, she says, because being a black man's wife would make her "stand out" in this stifling small town. Cody married Belinda, we are led to believe, because a beautiful white wife was, for him, the ultimate trophy.
Matters come to a head at an informal barbecue, where our narrator tells Cody and Belinda why he has come back to his hometown. Race—racism—figures significantly here. LaBute reaches the most important place in his storytelling in this climactic scene: he's defined a universe of characters who can't see anything about each other beyond the (different) colors of their skins. By withholding his protagonist's name, and by making him so breezily charming to us, he implicates us, cannily. LaBute is saying: Americans who don't, on some level, still struggle with the "race card" are lying.
But he doesn't end This Is How It Goes here; it goes on for several more scenes, with the ugliness intensifying as the Man and Cody are revealed to be more typically LaButian than we'd initially been led to believe, by which I mean that they are exposed as soulless, shallow, abusive men without regard for the humanity of Belinda or, presumably, any other woman. I found this part of the play hard to swallow—the nasty plot revelation, foreshadowed from the very beginning of the piece, hinges on character details that just didn't ring true for me. I also found this section gratuitously mean: LaBute's world view seems so bitter, and I wonder where the bitterness comes from.
But This Is How It Goes works, nonetheless, both as a mirror brought cruelly and calculatedly up to racist America's pretty face and as a nasty shock drama. Stiller is terrific, maybe even invaluable, in the leading role; Jeffrey Wright conjures just the right callow bravado for Cody. Amanda Peet is impressive as Belinda, but I found it jarring that she was the only actor on stage who was age-appropriate for her character; both Stiller and Wright seem at least a decade older. George C. Wolfe's direction is taut and strong. The spare design—especially Riccardo Hernandez's ingenious unit set and Batwin + Robin's clever projections—support the piece beautifully.
Did I like This Is How It Goes? The question turns out to be somewhat moot: LaBute wants us to collide with our shallow hypocrisy very uncomfortably, after all—and whether we want to face it or not, his point about the American psyche is a valid one. So it's good that I let him rattle me for an afternoon, and probably useful that you let him do the same to you as well. You'll emerge unscathed, but maybe not entirely unchanged.