Theater Review: Is Neil LaBute’s In a Forest, Dark and Deep Genius, Or Just Pretentious?

It was a dark and stormy night…

It’s hard to shake the sense that playwright Neil LaBute is both aware of and completely blind to this cliché, since his latest work begins just so. Set in an isolated cabin, In a Forest, Dark and Deep also promises shocking secrets revealed between siblings whose relationship may or may not be what it seems. Genius? Or just pretentious?

That’s a common question when it comes to LaBute, a difficult dramatist with a history of histrionics. When he’s on-point, his plays about bad people doing worse things are as eye-opening as they are entertaining. When he wobbles, however, his work can feel misogynistic, flat, and melodramatic.

With the regional premiere of In a Forest, Second Thought Theatre proves once again that one of its main strength lies in coaxing out raw emotion from characters who perhaps don’t always come equipped with a deep well. What LaBute has left wanting, Second Thought and director Regan Adair supply in waves.

The smart choices begin with Adair’s voyeuristic set, unsettling lit by Aaron Johansen. The audience, split into two facing sides, is invited to peer into the richly detailed cabin as Bobby arrives to help his sister, Betty, pack up what’s been left by a departed tenant. The siblings keep maintaining they’re not close—they haven’t even spoken for some time—but there’s an undeniable connection. This is only the first of many subtle clues that LaBute plants and Adair smoothly acknowledges, spurring us to constantly rewind what we think we know as the play progresses.

Jeremy Schwartz, excellent as a self-proclaimed redneck who clings to his rigid definitions of right and wrong, sets us up early to believe that his character is the bad one, the screw-up who can’t be trusted. But as he sifts through the absent tenant’s belongings, his off-hand comments and Betty’s peculiar reactions establish that the situation might be not be as clear-cut as we initially thought.

LaBute’s gleeful misdirections help this play masquerade as a thriller, but the twisting, 90-minute argument between brother and sister ensures that we never arrive at a true “aha!” moment. As Betty, Heather Henry is given more to work with than LaBute typically bestows his female characters. She’s a college dean, respected and well-off, but her covered-up tattoos and the way she nervously plays with her wedding ring hint at an inner turmoil. Henry sinks deeply into Betty’s troubled life, matching the formidable Schwartz shout for shout in what is essentially a marathon scene.

Watching these two on Adair’s claustrophobic set, with John Flores’ eerie sound design ratcheting up the tension, it’s not hard to get pulled into the siblings’ dark world. What’s harder is finding your way out.