The set is somber, black and gray, the viewing room of a funeral parlor. In the middle sits a coffin, bedecked with flowers; nearby, black tables hold photos of the dearly departed and her family. The music of Nat King Cole, lush and romantic - "Pretend," "It's All in the Game," "When I Fall in Love, It Will Be Forever" - wafts over the audience. The lights dim.
Enter Ed Harris, as Edward Carr, to tell us about his late wife, Mary Josephine Delaney Anderson Carr - also known as Jo Jo - and their long, loving marriage. For 70 magnetic minutes, Harris will own the stage - as he commanded the screen in "Pollock" - with his complex and surprising tale.
Edward, an orphan, and Jo Jo, a married woman with two children, met when he was 25 and she was 40. Their relationship, at first a scandal, was permanent and happy, with children of their own and a successful business, Carr's Cars, with "17 branches in five states," a rental-car company that specializes in classic used cars - rent-a-wrecks, as it were.
The play in question is Wrecks, at the Public Theater; the playwright (and director) is Neil Labute.. LaBute is known for his troubling and edgy depictions of human relationships. In plays and movies like In the Company of Men, The Shape of Things, The Mercy Seat and Fat Pig, he has specialized in emotional cruelty, misogyny, misanthropy and cynicism.
Now, in Wrecks, LaBute has chosen to deal with perhaps the most classically unsettling of human relationships. Think homonyms of the title. Think Greek. Think Jo Jo. Think tragedy.
But in Wrecks, Edward Carr feels no horrible remorse, engages in no tearing out of eyes, because of what he and his beloved Jo Jo have done. Could it be that the mega-cynical LaBute has turned soft? Could he possibly believe, as Edward Carr says, after revealing his secret near the end of the play, that what convention believes to be wrong - "or at least off the beaten track" - isn't really? That "to be loved is never wrong," especially if "not one fly or blade of grass ever suffered from it"? That "love's a special creature, no matter what form it comes in"?
Or, more likely, is LaBute merely setting up his character for a fall - that what he's really saying, to quote Edward Carr, is that "it's amazing what we do as people to run from the past - the swamplands we're willing to wade through to get around the past"? That we "can't bear to hear the truth anymore" - that we, so to speak, "turn a blind eye to it"? Were Edward and Jo Jo, in fact, wrecks?
Go and decide for yourself, and while you're there enjoy Harris's mesmerizing solo turn. Once or twice his phrasing and his movements may seem forced or exaggerated, but almost always he is both charming and convincing as a man convinced - or deluded - that his decisions and his life have been all for the best.
Wrecks isn't great theater. LaBute's language doesn't have the complexity or the poetry of a master. His one-character play wouldn't work as well as it does if it lasted more than its nearly hour and a quarter. But it is entertaining.
And at the end, you can exit to the sounds of Nat King Cole singing: "Let's fall in love, why shouldn't we fall in love?" And wonder about Edward and Jo Jo.