In a Forest, Dark and Deep is a new play by Neil LaBute. It’s running for a limited time at the Vaudeville Theatre and stars Lost’s Matthew Fox and Olivia Williams, star of such films as The Sixth Sense and The Ghost.
LaBute’s previous work includes Fat Pig and Some Girl(s) (He also directed Lakeview Terrace and the American remake of The Wicker Man, but for the sake of impartiality we won’t dwell on that here). LaBute’s works all have the same underlying themes, they take the two or more people on the opposite sides of a fence made up of human differences; this could be black and white, male and female etc, put them in the same place at the same time, turn up the heat and watch ’em cook. In the case of In A Forest Dark and Deep (or is it Deep and Dark, I can never remember) the two opposing sides are brother and sister, liberal and conservative, intellectual and labourer, instinctive liar and bull shit repellent truth seeker.
Bobby (Fox) arrives at his sister’s (Williams) cottage with nothing but his truck, seemingly filled with his opinions, mostly gained from an emotionally abusive father and memories of reading the bible when he was a young boy. He’s been recruited by his more successful sibling to help clear out all of the books and files belonging to her student tenant. Throughout the play there are numerous attempts at trying to pack things up that serve as breaks from the drama, each one violently interrupted by one of Bobby’s rants or his sister’s revelations.
Yes, this is another play about that most tedious and trite of subjects, secrets. A play in which an elephant has parked its backside in the middle of the room and stubbornly won’t shift until he sees people crossing their legs in anticipation of the loo. The point of secrets in a play like this is that finding out a person has one is supposed to be a surprise in itself. If you know someone has a secret, what’s the point in them having one in the first place? Many plays and books suffer from the same problem. Both mediums remain incredibly reliant in their ability to hold onto the audiences attention until the very end. And the one sure fire way of making this possible is by hinting at shocking information, only releasing it at the climax.
The trouble is you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to realize that somebody isn’t revealing the full picture. Or who that somebody is. And once you have made one calculation in your head they all seem to solve themselves, each problem standing up straight and rigid and then one falls down and all of them drop, like dominoes. And the secret in “Dark & Deep” is as obvious as that metaphor.
Lets look at the facts shall we? A title that recalls the schlockiest and laziest of Victorian/American Gothic, like a modern equivalent of “It was a dark and stormy night…”. The periodic blackouts and claps of thunder that punctuate the arguments between the two leads; the first of which stems from the sister claiming never to have heard the phrase “The Truth Hurts”. And let us not forget the metaphor that provides the play with its basis. Packing things away in boxes and keeping them out of sight? Really? Is that the best he can do?
And yet despite all of this clichéd melodrama that borders, at times, on camp, it remains entertaining.
This is mainly because the script is playful, the characters are compelling and the performances are powerful. Matthew Fox especially is a man with a storm of rage inside him, barely able to contain himself. He doesn’t say his lines or even shout them; he barks them with the force of an angry Doberman. And make no mistake, it’s his territory. Poor Olivia Williams has no choice but to concede to a greater power, cowering on the sofa like a lost little girl. But it is very convincing cowering.
Fox also showcases his ability to cut the well crafted tension with expertly timed humour. It adds to his characters complexity that he can go from an infuriating, thuggish Neanderthal to an endearing, philosophical drunk in the space of a comedic pause. It also shows that the script is well paced. Each shock provides the thrilling slide to this theatrical roller-coaster that is perfectly spaced out to give you just enough momentum to get to the next one without getting bored. Sure they are predictable but the script is interesting enough to make you enjoy how these easily foreseen moments are expressed.
But the best thing about this dark comedy, however, is easily the characters. Each has a well hidden core that is often contradictory to the façade they present to the world. They both peel away, never at themselves but at each other. This is a battle of wills, a classic Darwinian test of character. Each is inherently afraid of what the other represents, so desperately fearful are they of their inferiority to the other person that by the middle of the play you start to think the thing at stake is supremacy. Bobby uses his morality like a bludgeoning weapon and Olivia uses her intelligence like a knife. Bobby is a judgemental thug, of whom you are always wondering what right he has to judge and Olivia hides behind her own fabrications like an eight year old hiding in the closet. They are always unlikable but never unwatchable.
However the biggest problem this play has is also in the characters and their conflicts. Bobby is a wife beating bully and Olivia is a victimised wife and mother. So why does the play seem to take the masculine perspective? Why does the writers sympathy seem to be with the man who solves emotional problems with his fists? The whole thing seems so one sided, the play not only lacks balance, it seems lopsided. Perhaps we are supposed to feel sympathy for Olivia in the end. Just as we are led into feeling sympathy for Bobby’s actions. But what the play asks us to forgive is extremely questionable. Then again a good drama will make you question conventional morality. But maybe a play that does that, should have a bit more weight behind it before it takes on a fight such as this.