AUGSBURG, Germany — If all you know about Neil LaBute’s new play “The Answer to Everything” is that it’s an artistic response to #MeToo and “cancel culture,” you might brace yourself for an upsetting evening at the theater.
A tightly coiled chamber piece about three women who plot vengeance on the men who’ve wronged them, “The Answer to Everything” is the prolific and polarizing playwright’s first full-length stage work since “How to Fight Loneliness” in 2017. Since then, he’s fallen from grace in the rarefied world of New York theater.
LaBute has long been a diagnostician of dark, uncomfortable aspects of human relationships. A number of his best-known plays (several of which he’s adapted and directed for the screen, including “In the Company of Men,”) are unsettling examinations of cruelty that can leave viewers wondering whether LaBute supports or condemns his unsavory characters. Cynicism, viciousness and mercilessness — especially toward his female characters — have been some of the tools of his trade.
In recent years, these signature themes and attitudes have come under scrutiny. In 2018, one of New York leading nonprofit theaters, MCC Theater, abruptly ended its 15-year relationship with LaBute. No specific reason was given for the break, but the theater’s executive director told The New York Times, “We’re committed to creating and maintaining a respectful and professional work environment for everyone we work with.” The internet was abuzz with speculation that LaBute’s obsessive depictions of toxic gender dynamics had put him out of step with the contemporary cultural climate.
This background helps explain why “The Answer to Everything,” in which female retribution looms large, isn’t premiering at any of the New York theaters where LaBute has worked over the past three decades, but instead in Augsburg, a southern German city that is famous for being the birthplace of Bertolt Brecht.
It is unusual, to say the least, for a new play by a leading American playwright to debut abroad and in translation. In an email, LaBute explained why he chose a German theater to premiere his latest work.
“There are so many brave artists outside the United States who are willing to table material that might be less politically correct or audience-friendly,” he wrote, “and those are the places that I want to be.”
Any fears that LaBute’s new work would be a pity party after his exile from MCC, an evening validating misogyny or an anti-#MeToo manifesto evaporated once the curtain went up on Susanne Maier-Staufen’s sleek hotel set. Not only does the play take its female protagonists seriously, it also offers zero apology for entitled (and crude) male behavior.
It’s difficult to talk about “The Answer to Everything” without giving spoilers, but I’ll do my best. LaBute does a deft job of keeping us in the dark for the first half of the evening, as the nervous and often chatty banter between the three heroines circles a central issue — a vengeful pact that binds them to one another — without naming it. Maik Priebe, the director, knows how to sustain the suspense and tension, which are carefully rendered in Frank Heibert’s German version of the script, although the odd moments of comic relief are mostly lost in translation.
LaBute has funneled a wealth of influences and rendered them in his own signature style, with rapid-fire and naturalistic overlapping dialogue. The plot’s themes are redolent of Patricia Highsmith and Hitchcock, two masters of suspense not exactly known for their positive portrayals of women. Look more closely, though, and you find traces of other works about implacable women that have rubbed off on LaBute, from ancient Greek tragedy to films like “Diabolique” and “Drowning by Numbers.”
LaBute loves corkscrew-like plots and although “The Answer to Everything” can feel like a 100-minute ticking time bomb, it doesn’t detonate as one might expect. In lieu of wild twists, we get a gradual series of painful revelations. (LaBute is going for something entirely different from the explosive force of Emerald Fennell’s film “Promising Young Woman,” another recent drama of female retribution.)
One of the most refreshing things about “The Answer to Everything” is how it avoids moralizing. LaBute does not manipulate his characters or audience, and the tone is far from judgmental. We are not explicitly invited to either applaud or condemn the “answer” that this group has settled on in order to remove predatory men from their lives. Instead, we’re asked to examine the spectrum of gray between justice and revenge.
There is one critical plot twist that flies in the face of the call to “believe all women,” which I could see making American audiences squirm if the play makes it stateside (there are no concrete plans yet for a U.S. premiere).
An unflinching approach to examining bad behavior is nothing new for LaBute, but here he goes to uncommon lengths to make us understand his protagonists’ motivations and weaknesses. The group portrait is sobering and also less dreadful than you might expect.
The actresses play off one another skillfully, though not always with the nuance the script seems to require. With her mix of sang-froid and simmering rage, Katja Sieder is the most impressive of the bunch as Carmen, who is the gang’s no-nonsense ringleader. Ute Fiedler’s conscience-stricken Cindy equivocates and pleads with pathos-laden urgency. Paige, who is often stuck in the middle of the battle, feels the least fleshed out, both as a character and in Elif Esmen’s interpretation.
There were moments when this production felt like something of an out-of-town tryout. Judging by the enthusiastic response from an audience full of teenagers and older adults at the weeknight performance I attended, local theatergoers in Augsburg were eager to embrace the play’s conundrums and ambivalences, even if it meant going home with more questions than answers.
The Answer to Everything. Directed by Maik Priebe. Staatstheater Augsburg, through March 12, 2022