By Wendy Rosenfield
for the Inquirer
Neil LaBute is a frustrating, infuriating playwright, who also occasionally taps a direct line into the heart of men's darkness. Simpatico Theatre's version of LaBute's In a Dark Dark House, a taut 2007 drama about a family's secrets, recently retooled by the playwright, provides a conduit for that line, and for all the elements that make him so confounding and compelling.
As directed by Harriet Power, this is a nervewracking hour and a half. All three characters - adult brothers Drew and Terry and 16-year-old Jennifer, whom Terry meets at her father's miniature golf course - squirm like bugs under a magnifying glass in the hot sun, each trying to wriggle out of their own skin as one or the other continues to apply the fire.
When we meet Ahren Potratz's Drew, an attorney, he has been involuntarily admitted to a psych ward after a cocaine-fueled car accident while with a woman who was not his wife. Oozing an obsequious air that may or may not be born of deference to his older sibling, he maneuvers Allen Radway's Terry into telling the doctors about a traumatic event in their past: Both were possibly molested by the same man during one teenage summer. Yet this is just one episode in a long, shared history of brutality and betrayal.
There are so many twists in this script it would be unfair to discuss them, and revelation of surprises followed by discussion of those surprises makes up the bulk of the play. But each new bit of information builds on the last, and even when you can see LaBute's gears turning, this cast stays one step ahead of him.
While Drew connects with the world and its people, he slips out of everyone's grasp. Terry, damaged beyond repair, always seems to be straining against himself and winning, but just barely, and Radway plays him like a loser's Don Draper.
When he meets Mary Beth Shrader's Jennifer, she's toeing the line between knowingness and naivete. But it doesn't really matter; the whole encounter is in Terry's hands. As he reels her in and lets her out, he tightens and loosens his grip on a golf club. We want her to run and we want him to vanquish his demons, and we have no idea how anything will end.
Radway's performance is as intense and compressed as anything I've seen on a Philly stage, and in the Walnut Street Theatre's claustrophobic Studio 5, with Jerold Forsyth's sun-bleached lighting on Colin McIlvaine's bare, bleached wood set, there is little mercy or softness to be found. But then, why would anyone look to Neil LaBute for comfort?
Presented by Simpatico Theatre Project through June 1 at the Walnut Street Theatre's Studio 5, 825 Walnut St. Tickets: $10-$25. Information: 215-423-0254 or www.SimpaticoTheatre.org.