Quoth Caesar, via Shakespeare: “Cowards die many times before their deaths. The valiant never taste of death but once.” We all know what side of that equation old Julius fell on, but then again, he didn’t last long enough to qualify as the main character in his own play, did he? Cowards, on the other hand, have great staying power; they stick around long enough to get into serious scrapes. Two plays opening this week embrace the tradition of lily-liveredness, or try to, and both are comedies — though one of them doesn’t seem fully aware of it.
I missed Nick Jones’s Jollyship the Whizbang, by all accounts the finest puppet-pirate rock opera ever to grace the New York stage. His latest, The Coward, directed by his old Jollyship-mate Sam Gold (Circle Mirror Transformation), is a witty departure from the strictures of the felt-and-cutlass subgenre, but even at two full acts, it still feels like children’s theater for grown-ups. The title yellow belly, an eighteenth-century fop of fine birth named Lucidus Culling (Jeremy Strong), is under pressure to fight a duel or two from his father (Richard Poe), a bellicose, class-conscious MP. Culling pere has already lost two sons to dueling (“as befitting men with the right to bear arms”), but still seems practically jaunty at the prospect of losing his last and lamest scion. More than anything, the old man loves a good bloodletting. But Lucidus, who has the constitution of grape jelly and an girly-man voice to match, hires a mercenary with dueling experience, one Henry Blaine (Christopher Evan Welch, of Rubicon and The Little Foxes), to assume his identity and fight his battles for him. There is, of course, a woman involved, the preening blue blood Isabelle Dupree (Schaal), who takes her Enlightenment ideals salted with old-fashioned barbarity. (“I like David Hume,” she says, “except that I caught him staring at my breasts once.”) Matters spin quickly and gruesomely out of control, as they tend to in cases of military subcontracting. “Maybe my duels were less duels than what you’d call … manslaughter,” clarifies Henry, belatedly.
The Coward starts a bit stodgily and ends too sententiously, but at its best, it brims with playful anarchy. Strong finds surprising notes of nuance within his character’s cartoon foppery, though I wonder just what Jones thinks he’s created in Lucidus. He seems to be putting him forward — a little galumphingly — as a kind of post-male exemplar: a happy, grass-fed Homo Williamsburgensis, straight from the Enlightenment to a coffee shop near you.
Neil LaBute doesn’t do exemplars. He finds a weak spot and presses his thumb into it until somebody, often his audience, cries uncle. In Break of Noon, the weak spot goes by the meaningfully generic name of John Smith (David Duchovny), who wants us to think of him as an everyman. As we learn throughout the play, he’s more of an everyjerk — a cruel bully and a philanderer. The play opens with Smith emerging from a horrific office shooting unscathed, and claiming he was aided by the Almighty himself. It’s a situation not unlike the one Labute constructs in The Mercy Seat, except this unworthy survivor has decided to return to the world on his own righteous terms — right after he sells a camera-phone photo of the shooter in action. Smith launches a ministry based on his experience, and even though none of other characters in the play seem to buy his conversion — not his ex-wife (Amanda Peet), not his ex-mistress (also Peet, switching from sensible frumpwear to painted-on jeans and teased eighties hair), not the police nor the media — we’re told he attracts a large, offstage flock. And this is where Break of Noon breaks down: LaBute feels exactly one draft away from a fiercely misanthropic comedy about a bad prophet — not a reluctant prophet, or even an unworthy prophet, but a man who’s just bad at being a prophet. As Smith, Duchovny is transfixingly uncharismatic, an inarticulate dullard without insight or empathy, given to can-kicking tantrums. He displays no inner light, only a talent for empty cant and a droning conviction about his own specialness — which, we discover late in the play, is a half-a-bluff, hiding a Big Secret. (To call this late-breaking revelation a disappointment is to undersell the head-scratching collapse on display here.)
This newer, older, Californicated Duchovny possesses a gift for chilly dudely schmuckery, and feels ready to take the part further, but LaBute, abetted by his longtime director Jo Bonney, is too dour and too controlling to let the dickishness of the Smith character fully take over. Judgment is his, sayeth the playwright: Halfway through, he stages a scene where Smith seeks out the daughter (Tracee Chimo) of one of his slain co-workers. Naturally, she’s a call girl (it’s Biblical!), and the exchange ends up being one of LaBute’s symbolic rapes: Smith forces the girl to pray with him (on her knees, kids!), but it’s unclear why she complies, or even why she remains in the room after Smith reveals his identity — what mysterious power does this prophet have, beyond his towering self-regard? LaBute doesn’t say. Chimo, who shone in Circle Mirror Transformation, furnishes us with some of the play’s most honest moments, even if her character is only up there to suffer, like any good Labute frontierswoman. Batter her heart, four-personed play! But don’t actually try to say anything — about God, about men, about anything. Just provoke — and run. Golly, who’s the real coward here?