Theater review: 'Wrecks' at Geffen Playhouse's Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater
Ed Harris has excelled for so long as a Hollywood everyman with a gripping steely-eyed intensity that he doesn’t always get enough praise for the finesse of his acting. His performance in Neil LaBute’s solo monologue play, “Wrecks,” which opened Sunday at the Geffen Playhouse’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, provides an opportunity to correct this oversight and extol the delicate command of his character work.
Harris stands before us at a Midwestern funeral parlor (conjured with stuffy precision by set designer Sibyl Wickersheimer) in the person of Edward Carr, whose wife Mary Josephine has recently succumbed to cancer. She was the love of his life. In fact, their bond utterly transformed him, from a hollow shell of a man raised in the foster care system to a successful entrepreneur who owns a string of classic auto rental stores.
Smoking one cigarette after the next in a slim gray suit, Edward, whose own health is in steep decline (not that he seems to care a whit), shares his inner thoughts and musings in a seductive, almost conspiratorial manner. Although the audience always experiences the character on his own, Edward explains that he’s actually greeting fellow mourners. We’re privy to the volatile flow of feelings he’s learned to keep hidden from everyone else, the covert truth lurking behind the smiling facade.
Overhearing himself use the word “indeed” after someone describes Mary Josephine as “a lovely woman,” he can’t resist mocking his polite phoniness. This kind of talk makes Edward seem like a straight shooter, yet the gulf between himself and society is dauntingly wide.
It’s not just that he’s a consummate outsider -- he’s as split off from parts of himself as he is from other people. His only connection seems to have been with his wife, and it’s not long before this fanatical, exclusive passion, recounted in the numbed initial tone of grief, begins to set off alarm bells.
LaBute, who has made a specialty of tracking the more insidious varieties of male psychopathology in such films as “In the Company of Men” and plays such as “Fat Pig” and “Some Girl(s),” presents us with an unusual case study in “Wrecks.” The drama -- which had its world premiere in Ireland in 2005 with Harris originating the role he later reprised at New York’s Public Theater -- lays bare the psyche of a guy whose entire being has been warped by a colossal secret.
This seismic revelation, which comes only at the very end of this 75-minute tale, is of such a magnitude that Calendar readers would have reason to call for a public flogging were I to even hint at its nature. Don’t worry: I plan to keep a wide berth. Yet allow me to offer some theatrical context.
When I first saw the piece in 2007 at a special benefit performance at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, I was impressed more with Harris’ acting than I was with LaBute’s playwriting. The tumble of confessional words leading to a whiplash-inducing final disclosure left me feeling, as I often do at superbly enacted solo shows, as though I had just watched a champion racquetball player firing away on a court without walls.
But “Wrecks” deepened for me the second time around. Classical tragedy from Sophocles to Shakespeare has been drawn to characters dangerously deficient in some crucial area of self-knowledge. LaBute tests out a new version of this theatrical formula. Rather than representing a protagonist ambushed by catastrophic yet indispensable insight, he depicts one who is devoted to concealing what seems to be a guilty necessity.
Edward’s history may be narrated, but LaBute directly dramatizes just how the character juggles his precarious psychological reality. These furtive interior conflicts of Edward’s require an actor who can suspend moral judgment while not missing a revelatory quirk.
Harris is ideal in this regard, sympathetically registering the craters in Edward’s mental moonscape. And the lonely figure that emerges is one whose identity is made whole and bearable only through an attachment that is every bit as addictive as the cigarettes he’s sucking down.
It helps to have a performer as charismatic as Harris to lead us down this shadowy road. His charm holds out the promise of normality, even as it hints at something darker. This sly paradox serves Edward Carr’s strange story extraordinarily well, and LaBute’s faultless staging makes the most of the sinister synergy.
-- Charles McNulty
Follow me on Twitter @charlesmcnulty
"Wrecks," Geffen Playhouse's Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 7. $69 to $74. (310) 208-5454. Running time, 1 hour 15 minutes.
Photos: Ed Harris in "Wrecks." Credit: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times