A Lot of Words

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Neil LaBute is a playwright who likes to get under your skin. Love him or hate him, he's going to push your buttons, challenge your assumptions.

City Garage is tackling his 2011 play The Break of Noon and it's no exception.

We begin with an eerie interview with our protagonist, John Smith. As he begins to tell his story, the wall behind him is filled with a larger than life video projection. It captures Mr. Smith but also his video artifacts or echoes in a series of ghostly copies over his left shoulder. It's almost as if we can catch a glimpse of how his story is going to be magnified and distorted through its repetition.

And his is one of those stories that gets repeated. You see, John Smith is the lone survivor of a horrific office shooting: a fictional 'lone gunman' scenario that tragically sounds a little too familiar. Someone stormed into a busy office right at the noon lunch break and killed 37 people. Somehow, Mr. Smith was spared. More than spared, he was singled out. Amidst the hysteria, Mr. Smith believes he was chosen by God. He was saved . . . and now he needs to share that message.

His challenge is the people in his life, in his world aren't really buying it. The play unfolds as a series of two person scenes where Mr. Smith tries to 'convert' folks to his version of what happened, or what's happening. Some challenge the details of the story. Others wonder how or why he took a picture in the middle of the massacre that captured not only the killer but the gruesome carnage. His wife, who he cheated on — turns out he wasn't an angel before this — can't really believe he's a new person. The whole time Mr. Smith is just trying to figure out what it means to be good . . . and he's willing to try just about anything.

In the most bizarre scene of the play, Mr. Smith finds himself in a golden speedo with a ball gag being whipped by a dominatrix — who moments later — he's exhorting to accept the holy spirit. Like I said, Neil LaBute isn't afraid to push your buttons.

The challenge with The Break of Noon is that after nearly two and half hours, I wasn't sure what all that button pushing added up to. This being a City Garage production, the aesthetic is clean and for the most part uncluttered. The text is clear, the acting solid, and there's a lot to chew on: gun violence from Columbine to Charlie Hebdo; God's place in today's society; the role of the unlikely prophet. But even though Mr. LaBute calls upon the audience to contemplate these weighty questions, his onstage answers feel more monotonous than revelatory. These are issues that the theater should tackle; this just isn't the play that does it.

A guy at intermission summed it up best: "Boy, that's a lot of words."

The Break of Noon plays at City Garage in Santa Monica through May 10.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes with an intermission.

Photo: George Villas and Courtney Clounch in The Break of Noon (Paul Rubenstein)