The Sins of the Saints

Calista Flockhart trades Ally McBeal's everyday angst for Neil LaBute's scary, pop nihilism

By Jack Kroll

The most controversial of the new filmmakers is Neil LaBute, whose two movies, "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends and Neighbors," dealt with sexual brutality in yuppiedom. LaBute began as a playwright, and with the off-Broadway "Bash" he ups the ante—way up—on his pop nihilism. "Bash" consists of three short plays delivered as monologues by three terrific young actors, staged with perfect rhythm by Joe Mantello. In the first, "Medea Redux," Calista Flockhart breaks free of her Ally McBeal persona to remind us that she, too, is a stage veteran who's played Williams and Chekhov. Flockhart is riveting and harrowing as a young woman confessing a monstrous crime. The name Medea tells you what her crime is. Her face caught in the harsh light of a police interrogation, she pours out her story of being impregnated by a teacher at 14 and eventually killing the boy to revenge herself on her violator.

The second monologue, "Iphigenia in Orem," (a town in Utah) is brilliantly delivered by Ron Eldard as a business-type sitting in a hotel room talking to an unseen woman. The title is a takeoff on Euripides's play "Iphigenia in Aulis" about a girl whose father is commanded by the gods to sacrifice her. So this too turns into a confession of infanticide. The third play, "A Gaggle of Saints," is a double monologue by Flockhart and Paul Rudd as college sweethearts out on a "bash" in New York. Rudd is dazzling as the campus charmer whose bubbly narrative doesn't lose a single bubble as he merrily tells how he and his buddies assaulted (and possibly killed) a gay man in Central Park. "Saints" in the title is a play on the Church of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons; LaBute's killers are Mormons, as he is himself.

Why Mormons? Supposedly to show that bad things can be done even by people who subscribe to a faith with a rigid moral doctrine. But the Mormon angle feels like a gimmick, as do the references to Greek tragedy. These Euripidean echoes are meant to be ironic, at the same time LaBute wants them to earn his characters tragic status. This trying to have it both ways is not quite kosher. LaBute's hip horrors feel factitious; in Yeats's phrase, it's the will doing the work of the imagination. The young mother who kills her son, the business creep who allows his baby daughter to suffocate, the hotshot homophobe who pounds on a gay man's head until he feels it "soften," all this is cold-blooded sensationalism in a time when every day's news brings the real sensations of true horror.

Bash. New York. June 24 to July 24.