Filthy Talk for Troubled Times had its world premiere 20 years ago at NYC’s Westside Dance Project in a production also directed by Neil LaBute and has rarely been seen since. Which comes as no surprise since the play, set in a topless bar (“out near the airport,” of course) and featuring five men and two waitresses bemoaning the state of gender relations, is both dated and mediocre. Take, for example, this typical rant from Man 4: “’Silence equals death?’ Bullshit! ’Silence’ is not speaking out loud. (Beat.) ’Death’ is letting some guy put his thing up your ass, right?” Which, in our current post-Borat era, is less offensive than it is pathetic. If anything, Filthy Talk only confirms what I’ve suspected for quite some time, that LaBute is sort of the Paris Hilton for the smart set, forever trying to be outrageous but often ending up the butt of his own joke.
Not that LaBute, with his gift for snappy dialogue, doesn’t have anything to say—it’s just that all his ideas can pretty much be summed up in his tour de force In The Company of Men, and since then, he’s merely been repeating himself in variations on the theme of how men and women do wrong by each other. Because the playwright has been stuck on a loop for the past decade without challenging himself, how can he possibly challenge his audience? Interestingly, this goes a long way to explaining why he’s a darling of theater critics to this day. In essence, LaBute serves up classic comfort food for the academically inclined. We’ve come to expect LaBute characters to have the self-control of a five-year-old, thus every mean-spirited thing they say and do becomes wearily predictable. As familiar but no deeper than an episode of Friends. His stage work is only a blank canvas onto which an audience can project its own insights, making them feel self-assured, smug knowing that they’re better people than his immature characters.
And the limits of LaBute’s imagination are apparent in the volume’s other plays. The New Testament satirizes colorblind casting with sketch comedy bluster, while The War on Terror sends up religious intolerance with the added gimmick of an actress being pursued by a stalker (back to gender politics again). Romance, The Furies, and Helter Skelter all deal with relationships gone sour, though The Furies shows LaBute can stretch all the way to include the gays. Yet Barry and Jimmy, like all LaBute’s characters, are interchangeable, lacking any distinct voices regardless of color or gender, which renders them lifeless. Only I Love This Game, a monologue from an overenthusiastic baseball dad, truly shines and only because the character is steeped in Aaron Eckhart’s voice. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to think of another playwright so dependent on topnotch actors to humanize his clever but ultimately empty words. Unlike LaBute’s heroes, Mamet and Shepard, the playwright’s vulnerabilities are written on the page.
Filthy Talk for Troubled Times: And Other Plays was released on June 15 by Soft Skull Press. To purchase it, click here.