When two characters in a Neil LaBute play head into a forest — dark and deep or otherwise — one does not anticipate either an enjoyable stay or an easy exit for either party. But the latest LaBute drama, now in its American premiere at the Profiles Theatre in Chicago, contains various twists from a prolific playwright who, increasingly, takes as much care as he can to defy expectations and confound the identity ascribed to him by outsiders.
That tendency in, well, let's call it the later LaBute, strikes me as a healthy thing for a complex artist who, given the nature of the plays and of his particular personality, has batted away more intrusive biographical questions than most. I doubt he sees it, but both the intrusions and the irritated batting do his work good. They make defiant reinvention a constant, churlish necessity, which is a good thing when you are as naturally prolific as LaBute.
This time, the characters are not lovers but siblings — very different siblings, who, by their own admission, wonder how they can possibly have come out of the same womb. Betty (Natasha Lowe) is a college professor, recently a dean of humanities. Bobby (Darrell W. Cox) is a blue-collar laborer with about as much interest in semiotics as a possum. But that doesn't mean this Gretel does not need her Hansel: Betty has asked Bobby to the cabin on this dark and stormy night — the power keeps going out, a la Agatha Christie or Ira Levin — to help move some of the personal belongings out of the place so she can unload it. Or so she says. The less you know about the plot the better, but the opening thrust is that the mendacious Betty has appetites well beyond writing papers, and she is not giving her brother the full picture of her life. Bobby, meanwhile, has interests of his own.
"In a Forest, Dark and Deep" is a recent play, premiering in London in 2011 with Matthew Fox and Olivia Williams. Interesting and formatively atypical, it strikes me as very much a meditation on what is and is not true, on the ease of rushing to misjudgment, and also a further manifestation of the longstanding authorial fascination with the close link between deep intimacy and dark violence. Some of the thriller tropes, which tend to distract from the matters in hand, feel like an unnecessary unsurety that the play would be exciting enough, and I don't think this piece will be on the list of LaBute's greatest hits: his last play seen at Profiles, "Reasons to Be Pretty" is one of his best. But longtime students of the work of this fine American playwright will find more than enough to occupy their minds and stir their psyches for 90 minutes.
Director Joe Jahraus' production is staged in the old National Pastime Theatre, now Profiles' Main Stage. It's a much bigger space than the other theater up the street and it will take time for Profiles to adjust. At this juncture, the show is insufficiently enveloping, and full-on environmental impact needs to remain one of Profiles greatest strengths. The other issue in play is that Cox struggles to present a sufficiently normative character in the early stages of this drama — his guy is uncouth, granted, but still needs to be recognizable by type — to let his scene partner take focus and unveil her personal house of horrors. Lowe, a genteel actress with a powerful sting, is well cast here and she's aptly irritating and yet empathetic. LaBute knows where the bodies are buried with female characters of this type and he needles his way under Betty's polished surface, as he does so well.
But although you feel a strong pulse from both of these actors, the rhythms of the production are staccato, when a duplicitous relationship between siblings is surely should be faux-smooth. You've got to like the ordinary Bobby in the early stages more than Cox makes possible — the dude starts out here with so many tics and weirdnesses that he has nowhere to go. And conversely, Lowe has to show us a voracious appetite and set of needs that she and her director bring to the surface but never let howl.
Heck, it's a forest dark and deep, no one can hear you scream.
When: Through June 3
Where: Profiles Theatre Main Stage, 4139 N. Broadway
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Tickets: $35 at 773-549-1815 or profiles.org