AUGSBURG, Germany. If all you know about Neil Labuth’s new play “The Answer to All” is that it is an artistic response to #MeToo and “cancel culture,” you might be preparing for an unpleasant night out at the theater.
A tightly twisted chamber play about three women planning to take revenge on their men, Answer to All is the prolific and polarizing playwright’s first full-length stage work since How to Deal with Loneliness in 2017. , he fell out of favor in the sophisticated world of New York theater.
Labute has a long history of diagnosing the dark, uncomfortable aspects of human relationships. Some of his most famous plays (some of which he has adapted and directed for screen, including In the Company of Men) are disturbing ordeals of brutality that can make viewers wonder, support, or condemn Labute’s controversial characters. Cynicism, cruelty and ruthlessness – especially towards his female characters – were some of the tools of his skill.
In recent years, these characteristic themes and relationships have come under intense scrutiny. In 2018, one of New York’s premier nonprofit theaters, the MCC Theater, abruptly ended its 15-year relationship with LaBute. No specific reason for the hiatus was given, but a theater executive told The New York Times, “We are committed to creating and maintaining a respectful and professional work environment for everyone we work with.” The internet was buzzing with suggestions that Labute’s obsessive portrayal of toxic gender dynamics had puzzled him with the modern cultural climate.
This background helps explain why the premiere of Answer to All, in which female retribution is critical, will not be shown in any of the New York theaters where LaBout has worked for the past three decades, but instead in Augsburg, a city in southern Germany. which is famous for the fact that Berthold Brecht was born here.
It is at least unusual for a new play by a leading American playwright to debut overseas and in translation. In an email, Labuth explained why he chose the German theater for the premiere of his latest work.
“There are so many brave artists outside the United States who are willing to put material on the table that may be less politically correct or audience-oriented,” he wrote, “and these are the places I want to be.”
Any fears that Labut’s new job would be a pitiful party after his expulsion from the MCC, an evening of confirmation of misogyny, or an anti-# MeToo manifesto vanished as the curtain rose over Susanne Meyer-Staufen’s swanky hotel complex. The play not only takes the female heroines seriously, but also does not apologize for the strict (and rude) male behavior.
It’s hard to talk about Answer All without spoilers, but I’ll try. Labute cleverly keeps us in the dark during the first half of the evening, as the nervous and often chatty banter between the three heroines constitutes the central problem – the vengeful pact binding them to each other – without naming it. Maik Priebe, director, knows how to handle the tension and anxiety that are meticulously rendered in the German version of Frank Heibert’s screenplay, although the odd moments of comic relief are mostly lost in translation.
Labute has channeled many influences and reproduced them in his own signature style with fast and naturalistic overlapping dialogues. The plots are reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith and Hitchcock, two masters of suspense who are little known for their positive portrayals of women. Take a closer look, however, and you will find traces of other work about the implacable women who remain in Labute, from ancient Greek tragedy to films such as Diabolique and Drowning by Numbers.
Labute loves corkscrew-like plots, and while Answer to All may seem like a 100-minute time bomb, it doesn’t explode as one might expect. Instead of wild twists and turns, we get a gradual series of painful revelations. (Labuth is aiming for something completely different from the explosive power of Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, another recent drama of female retribution.)
One of the nicest things about Answer to All is how it avoids moralizing. Labute does not manipulate his characters or audience, and his tone is far from judgmental. We are not directly invited to either applaud or condemn the “response” this group has stopped at to remove the predatory people from their lives. Instead, we are asked to explore the gray spectrum between justice and revenge.
There is one critical plot twist that runs counter to the “trust all women” call, which I could see will make the American audience cringe if the play goes to the US (there are no specific plans for a US premiere yet).
This unwavering approach to the study of bad behavior is nothing new to Labut, but here he goes to extraordinary lengths to make us understand the motives and weaknesses of his protagonists. The group portrait is sobering and at the same time less gruesome than one might expect.
The actresses play skillfully with each other, although not always with the nuances necessary for the script. Katya Zider, who combines coolness and seething rage, makes the greatest impression on everyone in the role of Carmen, the serious leader of the gang. Cindy, killed by Ute Fiedler’s conscience, dodges and pleads with pretentious persistence. Paige, who is often stuck in the middle of battle, feels the least evolved in both the character and Elif Esmen’s interpretation.
There were times when this production seemed like a suburban trial version. Judging by the enthusiastic response from an audience full of teenagers and seniors at the evening performance I attended on weekdays, local theatergoers in Augsburg were eager to embrace the play’s mysteries and contradictions, even if it required going home with more questions than answers.
The answer to all… From director Mike Priebe… State Theater Augsburg – until March 12, 2022