nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
October 7, 2006
Wrecks is something of a departure for both its author, Neil LaBute, and its star, Ed Harris. Well known for boiling the blood of theatergoers with his in-depth examinations of mankind's darker side, LaBute this time makes an about face and places a genuinely nice man at the center of his new solo play. And, that man is played by none other than Harris, an actor famous for his volcanic intensity. With Wrecks, both men play strongly against type, and, for the most part, they pull it off. Harris shows off a charming, sensitive side of himself that fits his role to a tee. And, LaBute displays a heartfelt sincerity that he wears surprisingly well. The strength of his writing here lies in the details, which are meticulously layered and nuanced. They add up to a painstakingly specific portrait of a kind, but complex, everyman.
Unfortunately, that's the problem: Wrecks is only a portrait. LaBute, a master of conflict, has curiously written a play without one. That missing ingredient makes Wrecks a bit one-note, even at the show's hour-long running time.
The play focuses on Edward Carr, a self-made businessman in his late 50s, whose wife of 30-plus years, Mary Jo, has recently died. Wrecks takes place at Mary Jo's viewing, as Edward steps outside of himself, and talks about his wife, and how much he loved her (the play occurs inside his head, and chronicles his thoughts as he stands beside Mary Jo's casket).
Edward tells us about the day he met Mary Jo (who was, at the time, married to his then-employer), and won her over. He tells us about the business they built and ran together: "a string of classic automobile rental stores called "Carr's' Get it? "Carr's Cars.' Ok, yeah, kind of dopey, true..." He tells us about the initial hubbub their marriage caused around town (due to a severe age difference—Mary Jo was fifteen years older). And, he reveals that his days are also numbered: stricken with lung cancer, Edward has less than a year to live.
Then, as theatergoers have come to expect from LaBute, Edward confides in us the play's big twist—actually, two big twists. One is a deathbed confession from Mary Jo, the other a post-mortem confession of Edward's. I can't disclose either of them without ruining Wrecks, but take my word for it; they're a pair of doozies.
But, neither revelation can substitute for the tension and suspense created by conflict. They simply provide the button to a story told by a man who, considering the occasion and his own impending demise, has nothing left to lose. Or hide.
Wrecks strikes me as a transitional work for its author. Having populated his previous plays with a rogue's gallery of emotionally stunted men, LaBute leaps forward with his depiction of Edward. Here is a protagonist who's a proper, dignified man, a casual charmer who has graduated from the School of Hard Knocks with his share of scars (he was orphaned and grew up in foster homes), but has thumbed his nose at them. Edward is the first of LaBute's male protagonists who has no sins to atone for (or, at least, none that he cares to atone for), which frees the author to paint on a broader canvas with more colors than he normally uses. The inclusion of both compassion and sensitivity (and the fact that Edward is genuinely likable) result in some strong writing.
But, there's only so long a person can listen to someone talk about the same thing before wishing they would change the subject. Once Edward's love for Mary Jo is firmly established, there is nowhere else for Wrecks to go except towards its conclusion, which I couldn't help feeling a little cheated by. Maybe that's because LaBute's portrayal of Edward is so sympathetic that the ending doesn't jibe with the man we've just spent the last hour with: it feels much too wicked for him. Which may be LaBute's whole point, but, in this context, I just couldn't buy it. The twist ending feels more like a tacked-on afterthought than an inevitability.
But, Harris is excellent as Edward. Audience members (like myself) who know him only from his wonderful film work will be surprised to see how natural and completely relaxed he is on stage. Theatre is obviously his natural habitat. The way he savors a cigarette as if it were providing much needed nourishment, or his canny knack for endowing the word "indeed" with more meaning every time he says it (and he does quite a few times here), all point to a character built from the ground up with details. Harris' scrupulous specificity lends Edward a universal quality that allows the audience to plug right into him.
But, neither Harris nor LaBute can sustain Wrecks. The absence of conflict ultimately becomes the play's defining feature. Coming from someone like LaBute this is a real head-scratcher. But, thankfully, given his prolific nature, it won't be long before we get to see what's up his sleeve next. Until then, Wrecks is a serviceable stop-gap measure.