Neil LaBute is back, pushing every hot button he can find in "This Is How It Goes."
The playwright-provocateur's twisty 2005 comedy-drama, now making its Bay Area premiere in a sharp Aurora Theatre production directed by Tom Ross, takes the audience on a 90-minute spree through the dark side of race and gender relations.
Those familiar with LaBute's plays ("Reasons to be Pretty") and screenplays ("In the Company of Men") know that he holds no subject off limits. Here, he makes us squirm while asking us to consider the nature of bigotry, infidelity, truth and marriage.
The marriage in question is that of Cody (Aldo Billingslea) and Belinda (Carrie Paff), a mixed-race couple — he's black, she's white — in a small town.
Their comfortable life is upended when an old friend from high school comes back to town and rents the room over their garage.
The newcomer (Gabriel Marin, in a role simply called The Man) is clearly attracted to Belinda, and she seems to reciprocate, putting Cody, a high-strung high achiever, on alert.
Race shouldn't matter — they're old friends, after all — but it does, and LaBute ups the ante right away. As the two men square off, biases are revealed, and offensive words and phrases become weapons in the ensuing war.
In times of conflict, the playwright suggests, it's black against white, men against women, and every man for himself.
It takes a while to see where the battle lines are drawn. The play is slippery, made of carefully constructed, interlocking pieces, and LaBute clearly delights in confounding the audience's sympathies and expectations.
In a pivotal confrontation between Cody and Belinda, the scene is played, then replayed, with emphasis and outcome tweaked. Clues, in the form of literary allusions — to "Othello," "The Scarlet Letter," "The Mayor of Casterbridge" — come at regular intervals.
Ross directs with crisp efficiency, and the cast burns with conviction. Billingslea is brilliant, giving Cody an aggressive, slightly paranoid edge; Paff supplies counterpoint as his needy, walking-on-eggshells wife.
But "This Is How It Goes" is Marin's show. Charming in his bumbling-awkward early scenes, he slowly imbues The Man with arresting depth and darker hues. Between scenes, he narrates the action. But even his commentary is suspect. "I think I might end up being an unreliable narrator," he confides to the audience. Don't say you haven't been warned.This Is How It Goes
Where: Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes July 21
Tickets: $32 to $50
Contact: (510) 843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org