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Anna Paquin, Josh Charles and Melissa Leo in Neil LaBute's "The Distance from Here"
"Oh well, whatever, never mind":
Neil Labute and the Problem of Authenticity

By Jeff Turner


The Distance from Here
By Neil LaBute
MCC Theater at The Duke
229 W. 42nd St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200


Neil LaBute's The Distance From Here, an MCC Theatre production directed by Michael Greif at the Duke Theatre, is a tale of socially malnourished kids adrift in a suburban wasteland of strip malls and parking lots. The play was first performed in London by the Almeida Theatre Company in 2002 under the direction of David Leveaux. Championing the London production in The New Yorker, John Lahr declared that LaBute, "in his most ambitious and best play to date, gets inside the emptiness of American culture, the masquerade of pleasure and the evil of neglect." For Lahr, LaBute's play was a singular American achievement, a stunning work that forced its audience to "stare at the terrible so as to fathom it."

The action focuses primarily on sixteen-year-old Darrell and his best friend Tim. Saddled with a deeply dysfunctional family and a general disdain for the world, Darrell is a walking contradiction: an angry, disengaged, acerbically funny kid with just enough intelligence to recognize that life is an empty spectacle punctuated by bouts of human cruelty. "He'd have an angel's face if not for the downward twist his smile makes," LaBute writes of Darrell in his stage directions (the play was published in 2003)--a description that seems to reference earlier, more sentimental, social reform melodramas like Sidney Kingsley's 1935 Dead End or the 1938 Jimmy Cagney/Humphrey Bogart film Angels with Dirty Faces. Darrell, however, is burnt out beyond repair. Hovering at the margins of Darrell's world, Tim serves as the play's sentimental character. Still recovering from the scars of an abusive childhood, Tim is earnest and more passive, but he also harbors secrets born of loyalty for his closest friend.

In his preface to the play, LaBute remembers the delinquent teens with whom he interacted as an adolescent:

In high school, I sat next to a bunch of boys like Darrell and Tim in woodshop and algebra and study hall and watched them simmer and burn and consistently pull down a solid D- in nearly every subject. They knew, even at sixteen, that they had absolutely no hope in this life and they were pretty pissed off about it. Pretty damn pissed indeed . . . The Distance From Here takes a whack at capturing some of that teenage rage in a story about families. Shattered families to be sure, but families all the same.

This filtering of the dramatic narrative through personal memories lends the play a certain sense of authenticity. In particular, the characters' fiercely laconic, syntactically stunted speech patterns convey a grim immediacy. LaBute wants us to know he isn't making this stuff up; he's simply shaping the "climate of unboundaried emotional confusion" (to quote Lahr) into dramatic form. What you see is what we are, LaBute is arguing.

Youth is indeed symbolically central to American national identity, and this fact raises the stakes in all dramatic representations of youth. American audiences seem to be fascinated by the allure, the chic thrill of "childhood in crisis" narratives. While radical youth pierce, tattoo, thrash, dope and fuck--utilizing their bodies as sites of resistance and transgression--adults have continually commodified or sensationalized their rebellions. Consider this list of recent plays: Rebecca Gilman's The Glory of Living, Peter Morris's Square Root Minus One, Alexandra Cunningham's No. 11 (Blue and White), Naomi Wallace's The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek, William Mastrosimone's Like Totally Weird, Jessica Goldberg's Refuge, Kenneth Lonergan's This is Our Youth and James Urbanati's Hazelwood Jr. High. Or this group of recent films: Kids, Boy's Don't Cry, Thirteen, Menace II Society, Elephant, Donnie Darko, L.I.E. and Better Luck Tomorrow. In all of these, American youth at the turn of the millennium is rendered as dangerously other--an eroticized, hyper-aggressive organism whose presence threatens the social body. Youth is not represented with an eye for accuracy or authenticity but, more often than not, celebrated for its pathological violence, moral indifference and fascistic desire. Such representations revel in a vision of America as a depleted, empty, consumer wasteland without future or hope--the characters and the audience hyped up by the adrenaline rush of nihilistic abandon. Youth rarely narrates or constructs its own subjectivity in the American public sphere; it is shaped by and/or filtered through adult fears, pleasures and desires.

The opening scene of The Distance From Here places Darrell and Tim at the zoo in front of a cage of monkeys and the metaphoric implications are all too obvious. LaBute seems to be borrowing from Howard Korder's 1987 play Fun and Mike Myers and Dana Carvey's 1992 film Wayne's World, but his most obvious textual reference in these opening moments is Mike Judge's incendiary MTV cartoon series from the early 1990s, "Beavis and Butthead." The difference between Darrell and those idiot-savants, whose ironic critique of American pop culture worked to empower teenagers exiled to the margins of the American dream, is that Darrell's rage is palpable yet unsatiated. The caged animals on display do nothing to mitigate his self-loathing.

When the audience is not watching Darrell and Tim hanging out with friends, or Darrell's girlfriend Jenn at the mall bus stop, or the school detention center, or even an empty "slab of blacktop forced up against the back corner of a building," the action returns to Darrell's living room, described by LaBute as "[w]ell worn and thread bare. Not messy but cheap. Really cheap." Here Darrell contends with his overworked, under-appreciated, thirty-eight-year-old mother Cammie; his twenty-one-year-old step-sister Sheri and her unwanted, infant son; and Cammie's thirty-three-year-old live-in boyfriend Rich--a "plain-faced but muscular" Gulf War veteran who is sleeping with both mother and step-daughter. These household scenes are sexually charged and uncomfortably claustrophobic, brimming with inchoate rage and frustration. An atmosphere of intimidation and defeat permeates the space, underscored by the continuous, unnerving wail of Sheri's neglected baby.

The action culminates in a series of violent collisions. In an effort to remember a moment of childhood reverie, Darrell turns to Cammie for more specific detail:

CAMMIE: Truthfully, I don't recall that much about you. Really. Growing up, I mean.
CAMMIE: Nah. Just fucking happened and then, one day, well, there you were. Darrell. (BEAT) Course I can remember taking you around places when you were little, the store and stuff, and losing you at the mall one time--Shopping Center, they used to call it, "Shopping Center"--you crawled under a goddamn bench outside Sears and I couldn't find you for, maybe, twenty minutes . . . Shit like that I recall, but you, I mean, just you as an individual--you never really made that big an impression.

Idyllic fantasies expunged, Darrell stoically returns to the television, "clicking through the channels, one after the next, faster and faster." But in the following scene, set again in the zoo, at a penguin pool currently closed for repairs, Darrell startles Tim and Jenn by arriving with his kidnapped nephew unsafely stowed inside a duffle bag.

"I wanna ransom 'em to you. You and Tim," he snarls. Jealous that his girlfriend has been fucking around and angry that Tim may have played a role in Jenn's deceit, Darrell demands answers in exchange for the worryingly silent infant. When he discovers Jenn was pregnant with his baby two summers earlier and that Tim helped to arrange a brutal, backroom abortion--a physical pummeling in exchange for oral sex--Darrell is dumbfounded. With his childhood erased by his unfeeling mother and his own child destroyed by a repugnant act of desperation, Darrell hurls the duffle bag over the wall and into the icy pool of water. Is this a malevolent act of uncontrollable rage or a twisted attempt at barbarous compassion? LaBute leaves the choice up to us. In any case, a fight breaks out between Darrell and Tim, leaving both a bloody, broken mess. Darrell is the last one standing, unsuccessfully pleading with Jenn to escape with him.

Logan Marshall-Green and Mark Webber in Neil LaBute's "The Distance from Here"If these events sound a little familiar, they are. The climactic killing is eerily reminiscent of the violent infanticide at the heart of Edward Bond's 1965 play Saved, though LaBute's text lacks Bond's audaciously vitriolic critique of post-war British despair. The world has grown still harder, colder, and more immune to human atrocity in the forty years since Saved was first staged, and the ghost of Bond's play haunts The Distance From Here on every page.

One might ask, who is the audience for this kind of theatre? The play does seem more interested in authenticity than most of the works just mentioned, but is it a work of social naturalism as Emile Zola would have it? Or is it merely an exhilarating piece of theatrical slumming? To succeed financially LaBute's working-class milieu must play to the trendy downtown theatre crowd that supports production groups like the Manhattan Class Company as well as to those mostly white, college-educated patrons of "alternative" culture who choose to attend challenging plays in cities like Chicago, Minneapolis and Seattle. One doesn't imagine The Distance From Here crossing boundaries of class to speak directly to those to whom LaBute supposedly gives voice, and therein lies the conundrum. What purpose does LaBute's stab at authenticity serve?

To address this question, I turn my attention to that section of his potential audience who might self-identify as "Generation X." "Generation-X" (a term coined by novelist Douglas Copeland) came of age in the late-1980s and early-1990s and was particularly influenced by the socially subversive rock-n-roll movement called "grunge." Shaped by the merging of thrash metal and punk styles in Seattle, Washington, the grunge aesthetic--as performed by such bands as Mother Love Bone, Mudhoney, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Nirvana--fought to resist corporate hegemony and the homogenized sounds of popular American music (think of Bobby McFerrin's innocuously insipid anthem "Don't Worry, Be Happy," or the multi-platinum success of Milli Vanilli), preferring an abrasive, often socially conscious, DIY rock-n-roll sneer. Embraced by a legion of suburban white youth, the movement certainly felt authentic at first, inspiring a generation to reject brand-name corporate conformity in favor of anti-style (torn jeans and thrift-store flannel) and an earnest reinvention of rock tropes. The bands' dark music articulated a resonant poetics of youthful alienation (recall Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" video or Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," for example), yet the overwhelming success of Pearl Jam and Nirvana also marked the movement's early demise. By the time Kurt Cobain committed suicide in 1994, grunge had already been appropriated and repackaged by corporate music labels, and "authentic" grunge fashion could be purchased in any mall across the country. When subcultural style becomes so quickly and easily commodified, it is no wonder that representations of youthful nihilism become popular cultural products for cynical young audiences.

Larry Clark's controversial 1995 film Kids, written by the then twenty-year-old Harmony Korine, was something of a watershed event in this evolution of representation of American youth. Kids clearly articulated the growing dissatisfaction and social alienation felt by many young adults across the country, and it was generally read as a truthful portrait. As Rolling Stone's Peter Travers wrote: "What sets Kids apart as daringly original, touching, and alive is its authenticity." It was the series of horrific school shootings in America during the latter half of 1990s, however, culminating in the Littleton, Colorado, massacre at Columbine High School, that most widely illuminated the reality that many American youth felt disconnected from adults, alienated from their peers, and filled with an enormous amount of loneliness and rage. While a complete analysis of the Columbine murders and the moral panic they instigated for frightened adults throughout the nation is beyond the scope of this essay, it is my contention that the ways these acts of brutality were mediated and disseminated to the public contributed to further alienating the young from adult forms of authority.

Edgy, malevolent representations of childhood on the margins of society were celebrated by an interpretive community looking to elevate such fictions--whether sincerely or ironically--as potent markers of a culture in decline. The "dark romance with risk," to borrow a phrase from a Newsweek article published in the weeks following the Columbine murders, was not only an indicator of youthful rebellion (seen as both healthy and potentially self-destructive), but a palpable desire which shaped the way audiences were drawn to transgressive images of angry, disaffected, and violent kids. The act of watching dangerous teens on the stage and screen served to channel the frustrations of youthful, privileged and educated audience members ambivalent toward American consumer culture and ripe for subversive spectacles of neglect and indifference.

The attraction to such fictions does not constitute an investment in the pursuit of authenticity, as LaBute might have us believe. His play does, however, interrogate the idea that authenticity can ever be embodied on stage or captured by film. The Distance From Here is appealing not because it offers a vision of unmediated reality, but because it provides its audience with an edgy, apolitical escape from the real, representing teen life as if it existed outside the boundaries of history and public policy. The illusion of the authentic in the play makes invisible the social and cultural forces that shape our mythological notions of America as a land of freedom and plenty. Any possibility of giving voice to these kids is contained by the very act of representing them. Rather than offering insight and analysis into the material conditions that produce teenage alienation and despair, The Distance From Here ultimately makes invisible the causes of its characters' inchoate rage and disconnection. Darrell, Tim and Jenn are little more than empty signifiers, sensationalized ciphers consumed by the intense gaze of adult desire.

At this crossroads of the real and the artificial, the politics of representation is always fluid, always contesting, re-constructing, and re-presenting cultural notions--however problematic--of the authentic. In our current media-saturated age, where recently uncovered video images of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris continue to circulate four years after their killing spree at Columbine High, representations of teenage bodies on stage may have the potential to offer up a version of authenticity absent from cinematic and televisual images. But The Distance From Here, while certainly gruesome and electrifying, holds an essentially negligible mirror up to nature. John Lahr aside, other New York critics got it right this time. Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times that the production was "synthetic thunder of cold, easy irony." Alexis Soloski, writing for The Village Voice, said the play's social message was lost in "aimlessness and forgettable dialogue." In conclusion, the morbid fascination of this play's depiction of extreme adolescent behavior reveals a complicity between such sensationalized narratives and the audiences whose patronage confers the illusions of legitimacy and real understanding.


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