The Break of Noon
Written by Neil LaBute
Directed by Jo Bonney
In the middle of Neil LaBute's under-thought The Break of Noon
(through December 19), a talk-show host jokes about how touchy women can get about gender issues. It's a self-referential nod to the playwright's oeuvre
, whose signature issue—exploited for controversy time and again—has always been the battles of the sexes. But LaBute's not going there again; he sidesteps gender in his latest, though it's present to some extent, as he similarly glides past xenophobia, the national obsession with morbidity, and the arrogance of exceptionalism to tackle something else: a controversial subject a little less 90s, a little more post-9/11, than just misogyny in its many distasteful forms. The Break of Noon
is about religion.
And it has two sharp scenes—its bookends. In the first, John Smith (David Duchovny), alone on stage, rivetingly recounts how he just survived the worst office shooting in American history by, literally, the grace of God—Old Testament-style divine intervention in a post-New Testament America. In the last, he confesses a more detailed account of that shooting and the events leading up to it, which he has withheld throughout the play. (In between is just a lot of repetitive filler.) Duchovny, making his professional stage debut, is as gripping as the writing in that introduction: hoarse, disheveled and rumpled, he trembles his way through the account, occasionally cracking a joke amid the unlaughable. It's a signal to what we'll learn about his personality: that he's kind of a dick. But the experience seems to trigger a Regarding Henry
-like personality change, at least at first, turning an unlikeable guy—the kind whose wife (Amanda Peet) leaves him—into a born-again proselytizer who devotes his life to spreading The Word. But faith-based advocacy is at odds, of course, with the modern-era's apathy toward righteousness and rectitude. "It's a tough age to believe in anything," that talk-show host (Tracee Chimo) says.
As the play unfolds, we get an idea of just how bad this guy was—and, is. In shorthand, he's a typical LaBute protagonist: mean, racist, philandering. And that's just on the surface. He's a manipulator, an exploiter, and it appears post-conversion that he's still just using people, only now with the gravity of God's command. "I'm still just the same man," he tells his former mistress (Peet, again). People don't really change—do they? (Who can really judge the sincerity of a man's spiritual motivations?) We learn that the shooter was named Juan Diaz, kind of the Latino equivalent of "John Smith," suggesting that the two echo each other—that this is a tragedy in which the survivor is as morally compromised as the perpetrator. If Smith stands in for America, then this is LaBute's late-arriving 9/11 play.
He certainly wants us to see ourselves in Smith; or, at least, to use him as a prism through which to view ourselves darkly. (LaBute never invites our scorn onto this reprehensible character.) Smith emerges as a bad man desperately seeking someone to tell him he's not. Of course, God has already told him that, and that's where LaBute complicates matters. The Break of Noon
grapples with questions like whether bad men reform, or whether we can forgive those who trespass against us. And while it may seem fair to hold certain grudges—namely, those that the many characters maintain against Smith—LaBute throws religion's capacity for forgiveness in our faces, asking us to explore our inability to pardon the unpardonable. John Smith might fall short of a divine ideal, but so do we.
(photo credit: Joan Marcus)