Neil LaBute has made his name as the bard of the bad boys.
From "The Shape of Things" and "Fat Pig" to "reasons to be pretty," he has gotten inside the heads of men behaving badly and the women they torment in juicy games of cat and mouse. The provocateur-playwright has always nailed the cruelty of pop culture from its obsession with beauty to its love affair with materialism. He has always gone for the laugh and the jugular with savage panache. In "This Is How It Goes," he skewers the brutal nature of gender and race relations in America today with a gasp-worthy tale of love and betrayal.
Tautly directed by Tom Ross, "This Is How It Goes" exposes the tenacity of prejudice in America, and it doesn't flinch in the face of the bigotry it finds in any quarter. No one is innocent in this explosive deconstruction of small-town America in its regional premiere at Berkeley's Aurora Theatre Company. One of his most cringe-inducing plays, this three-character mind game pushes our buttons hard.
Meet Belinda (Carrie Paff) and Cody (an intense turn by Aldo Billingslea), a seemingly happy married couple living in small-town America. They don't give much thought to the fact that they have an interracial marriage until the day they let an old high school buddy (Gabriel Marin) known only as the Man rent the room over their garage. The third wheel takes great relish in upsetting the delicate balance of their relationship, leading to much bickering over the old barbecue.
As the marriage unravels, LaBute teases out the insidious assumptions that one race often makes about another even when everyone thinks they are fair-minded and enlightened. The truth is, according to the playwright, that when the chips are down, people will use every weapon at their disposal to destroy the competition.
The ever politically incorrect LaBute tips his hand early on that he plans to play the trickster. Glib references to Hitchcock's "Stranger on a Train," Thomas Hardy's "The Mayor of Casterbridge" and "Othello" hint that there is more than meets the eye to this love triangle. The playwright is out to play with our heads, to make us feel sorry for bullies and sympathize with jerks until we are left uncertain whether anybody would be as likable as we think they are if we only knew all their secrets.
The uber-male Cody, once a star athlete, is one of the few black faces in a small white town. He's handsome and rich and successful, but he's got a grudge against the world, grounded in his belief that he would be treated better if he were white.
The Man used to be a lawyer and he's still a quick-witted know-it-all. He's only too willing to put up with Cody's hostility if it means he can bask in Belinda's presence. The Man, for the record, is also the narrator of the piece, although he admits that he is hardly reliable. Like everyone in LaBute's ambiguous universe, he tells little fictions to himself as well as others.
Belinda is the only one with half a conscience. She tries to make the best of things and see the best in people even when that's a laughable notion. Paff lends her a palpable intelligence, which makes it all the sadder that she's tied to such losers.
Some accuse LaBute of goosing his characters to make the audience wince (and then giggle), but what makes his plays stand out is how unflinching he is about relationships. The ugliness on stage is a just a reflection of what plays out on the street corner.
LaBute lets us watch scenes re-enacted from different points of view because the truth of what transpires among these three is quite elusive. Belinda's admission of what she first saw in Cody is almost as startling as the Man's casual use of racial epithets and the suggestion that most marriages start in euphoria and end in regret.
All of this jostling, sparring and reversal would fall flat if it weren't for the probing performances and sly direction that the Aurora specializes in. These three actors (all of whom were also memorable in "Collapse") ground the playwright's slippery narrative in such bracing candor that you can't bear to look away for a moment.
'THIS IS HOW IT GOES'
Written by Neil LaBute
Through: July 21
Where: Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St. Berkeley
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes (no intermission)
Tickets: $32-$50; 510-843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org