Land Of The Dead/Helter Skelter, Bush Theatre, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

"I do not want this becoming... one of those Greek dramas," says a man to the wife he has betrayed in Neil LaBute's Helter Skelter. To which one can only respond: "Then you're really in the wrong play." As in many of his other works, LaBute exposes, with forensic precision, the casual, shabby inhumanities of humans, then answers them with a titanic gesture that contains all the emotion that they deny.

These two short plays (one hour in total) of nameless American couples are little masterpieces of timing, ballets of emotional terrorism. The characters edge toward each other, circle, back away. In Land of the Dead, the weaker of the couple is the woman, who has agreed to the man's wish that she have an abortion. "I'm pro-choice, I am," he tells us. "She can choose to keep the kid, or she can choose to keep me." It's a joke he heard at work, he laughs.

While the woman is having their baby scraped out of her, he is at breakfast with his boss, appreciating the food, resenting a harangue, and thinking: "I might as well have gone with her to the clinic... At least I could have read a magazine or something."

At such a moment, a boo or hiss seems the right response, but this hollow man so chills us that we can manage only a sharp intake of breath. Something more than personal insensitivity is going on here – this is, in miniature, the scorched and burnt emotional and moral landscape of America today, and of our own country as well.

The same icy wind blows through Helter Skelter, in which a man not only commits an act that destroys his family, but speaks as if it had no meaning. His language is that of corporate slogans ("we can... work together for a better tomorrow") and old best-sellers ("tomorrow is another day"). LaBute is very good at showing how such smooth negation brings about what the speaker is trying to wash away. So concerned is the man to avoid any blame, much less punishment ("It just happened") that he drives the wife to think: You don't want to know what pain is? Maybe this'll show you.

By this point in LaBute's career, however, there are numerous questions to ask. What at first attracted these women, so articulate and sensitive, to these brutish men? Did they take the men's impassivity for strength? Might they have actually, condescendingly, welcomed it, seeing their own greater emotional openness and resilience as a mark of superiority? The balance of virtue is so one-sided that we're watching a slide rather than a struggle.

And what of the audience's feelings? There hangs about this sort of writing a scent of emotional pornography, of the innocent woman mentally ravished by the wicked man. Does it invite compassion, or complacency – encouraging the female spectator to identify with the blameless heroine, and the male to feel that he's nothing like as boorish as the specimen before him?

But these qualms occur only well after watching an incisive production by Patricia Benecke with mesmerising acting from John Kirk, Patrick Driver, and, especially, Ruth Gemmell. Alternating perkiness with stunned bewilderment as the abortion patient, deceptively sociable and chatty, then burning with vengeance as the betrayed wife, this fine actress creates an almost unbearable gallery of female anger and loss.

In a way, this great double bill is one of frightening timeliness. For the callousness demonstrated here could as well be that of the Arts Council. In its proposal to cut the funding of the Bush, which, now headed by the enormously talented Josie Rourke, looked to be on its way to an even brighter future, it is killing the unborn playwrights.

To 16 February (020-7610 4224;