The plays (and movies) of Neil LaBute never go down easy, and despite its slim 70-minute running time, the playwright's latest, Wrecks, starring Ed Harris at the Public Theater, is no exception.
Wrecks is a one-man show in which Harris plays Edward Carr, a fifty-something widower standing outside his wife's funeral, letting the audience in on his thoughts since his wife's demise. This is not a eulogy; instead, we get a stream-of-consciousness narrative detailing how Edward met his wife, fifteen years his senior; talking about how his smoking addiction has led to his own cancer; and discussing such threads as the store chain he and his wife ran throughout the Midwest, their four children, how he was given up for adoption, and the time a car accident nearly cost him his dear wife.
Harris weaves such an enchanting spell as a storyteller that he pulls the audience in for the duration of this extended monologue and never lets them go. The taut actor is focused, intense, and tough, dominating the stage and punctuating his more salient ruminations with a drag of a cigarette or the repeated use of the word "Indeed," a word which Edward remarks is rather curious to him.
LaBute deftly layers in subtle character reveals as he piles on the exposition; Wrecks does not waste one second or one line of dialogue. In addition, Klara Zieglerova funereal set looks both appropriately elegiac and quite dignified. While the play (directed by the playwright himself) allows its audience to get to know two people - Edward and his late wife - very well, I will say that the playwright builds to something more, a twist that has become LaBute's signature. So carefully is it developed, and slyly hinted at, that one will think themselves silly for not having seen it sooner. But it also threatens to diminish the work as a finely studied character piece.
Luckily, Wrecks has an actor too stubborn to let the show get sucked into mere gimmickry. As expected, Harris' is a virtuoso performance, full of vitriol, remorse, and, yes, love. His rage can be entirely believable, and even, at times, childlike. Ultimately, though, LaBute shows that Edward has been a master of his own destiny, and is simultaneously at peace and enraged by the love life has taken from him.
Moving and artful as Wrecks is, it also proves to have a little wiggle room for improvisation, as I found on the night I attended the show. A tearful audience member, blowing her nose with a roll of toilet paper, accidentally let the roll unfurl all the way onto the stage, where it was noticed by all. Harris, with the slowest of slow burns, gently acknowledged this show-stopping event and returned the roll of toilet paper to its rightful owner, all in character and with excellent timing - surely the mark of a seasoned professional well worth watching.