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Soft Skull Press (#110 of 2)

Boundaries of Choice Tara Ison’s Ball

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Boundaries of Choice: Tara Ison’s Ball
Boundaries of Choice: Tara Ison’s Ball

Tara Ison writes stories of love, sex, and abuse, but they’re all, in the end, stories of destruction. Ostensibly set in Los Angeles (and, in one case, St. Louis), the 11 short stories collected in Ball really take place in the vast, alienated expanses of the contemporary female psyche. Ison’s protagonists, who also typically narrate their own stories, may seem normal enough at first, but they’re invariably psychologically dominated by men—boyfriends, lovers, fathers, abusers. There’s no escape, only annihilation.

A woman so grief-stricken over the death of her boyfriend that she refuses to leave her apartment for months until one night she suicides herself on a cactus shares something in common with a woman who atones for her marital infidelity by surrendering her independence, tattooing her husband’s name on her breast like a cattle brand, and literally chaining shut her vagina; they both have allowed a man to imprison their minds. Even a successful, condo-owning woman who does “fucking amazing things, all on my own” can’t escape her feelings for a longtime fuck buddy who’s clearly just not that into her. As he informs her of his engagement to another woman, she thinks of the time she gave him an inelegant blowjob: “I’ll do it right this time, be everything you want, all of it, achieve everything for you.”

Desperate to Be Shocking Neil LaBute’s Filthy Talk for Troubled Times: And Other Plays

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Desperate to Be Shocking: Neil LaBute’s Filthy Talk for Troubled Times: And Other Plays
Desperate to Be Shocking: Neil LaBute’s Filthy Talk for Troubled Times: And Other Plays

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.