Neil LaBute is not your average storyteller, to say the least. There is nothing he loves more than making his audience feel uncomfortable — and rightfully so. With his plays, he seeks not to tell warm tales of the goodness of humanity but rather strives to dissect the flaws of humanity through irony and satire. In “reasons to be pretty,” “The Shape of Things” and “Fat Pig,” LaBute digs deep at society’s obsession with superficial beauty and materialism. However, with Aurora Theatre Company’s 21st season closer “This Is How It Goes,” the playwright centers his focus on the notions of gender and race — challenging such notions smartly without reserve.
The plot revolves around a love triangle, and LaBute provides us with an unnamed and “unreliable” narrator (Gabriel Marin) to tell the story. Said narrator has mysteriously returned to his small Midwestern hometown and rents the apartment above the garage of interracial couple Cody (Aldo Billingslea), a successful black man, and Belinda (Carrie Paff), his blonde trophy wife. To say this love triangle is a complicated one would be an absolute understatement. Cody, Belinda and the narrator all attended high school together — Cody was popular and the star athlete, Belinda his high-school sweetheart, and the narrator was the class clown infatuated with Belinda. Years have since passed, and the arrival of Marin’s character tests the true moral nature of each character — presenting in a candid manner the ethical issues associated with ethnicity, sexism and love in modern society.
How it goes is never quite clear. The unnamed narrator will tell you himself he is an aspiring playwright; thus, the script’s dialogue can’t be fully trusted. At one moment, he presents two different versions of a scene — one he constructed in his mind and another based on what Belinda informs him of. As the plot unravels, twists and turns are thrown left and right. Each scene that plays out questions the validity of the one prior. The presence of such a narrator is one aspect of the work that makes it so delightfully unique. LaBute really rocks the boat with “This Is How It Goes,” for nothing is really as it seems. However, one thing is for sure: Each character is noticeably unhappy.
With a script such as this, the theatrical production itself is not one difficult to perfect if simply approached from the right direction. It is not a play that needs to be aesthetically extravagant in any way; instead, it requires actors to be truly committed to their roles. Aurora Theatre Company’s production of “This Is How It Goes” is most notable for its acting. Paff is incredibly moving as the vulnerable and emotionally damaged Belinda. Billingslea as the stoic alpha male Cody is so accurate to the role it’s terrifying. And of course, there is Marin, who vividly captures the eager yet deceiving spirit of the unreliable narrator.
LaBute is a brilliant artist who theatrically illustrates the terrible ways people treat each other, exposing how such behaviors are justified and excused by society’s norms. The story that plays out in Aurora’s season closer is not a pretty one by any means, but it unflinchingly paints an image of humanity in true and rare form.
“This Is How It Goes” will be running at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre from now until July 28.