First Nighter: Neil LaBute's Money Shot Hits the Target

Neil LaBute does it again -- and even farther out. Having often concentrated on the battle between the sexes in his comedies, he now goes literal. No further description here of how he does that, because it's too much fun to watch unfold. Just know that The Money Shot, his new one at the Lucille Lortel, is entertainment start to finish.

To be honest, The Money Shot (title appropriated from porn-industry jargon, if you didn't already know) shouldn't be as consistently amusing as it is. LaBute gets his laughs -- and he gets a carload of them -- from two embarrassingly easy targets.

Shame on him, really. On the other hand, much gratitude for bringing us Steve (Fred Weller) and Karen (Elizabeth Reaser). They're movie stars on the B.O. skids but currently shooting a movie together that they both hope will make the public fall in love with them all over again.

Their sights are pinned on a specific love scene included in the apparently steamy script. To make certain it goes right, they're spending an evening with their significant others at Karen's multimillion-dollar home overlooking Los Angeles -- and, to Karen's dismay, an exceedingly noisy freeway. They've all gathered to discuss filming boundaries.

Steve's year-old marriage is with tall, blonde and vacant Missy (Gia Crovatin). Karen is partnered with Bev (Callie Thorne), a decidedly educated (Brown, if you must know) woman now a documentarian.

LaBute relies for his humor on Steve's stupidity -- at one point, he insists that Belgium isn't exactly a European country -- and Karen's superficial charity involvement -- she chats airily about inviting underprivileged children to her expensive pad (Derek McLane is the set designer) for picnics every so often.

At no point does LaBute let up on Steve's ignorance and casual anti-gay prejudice. Nor does he pull back from Karen's histrionics. (Wait for the moment when, as a result of accumulating stressful events, she declares she's sad.) The prolific playwright also gets yuks from 24-year-old Missy's dim nature. Though Steve wants her to stay anorexic-thin, her appetite for the weird hors d'oeuvres Karen puts out as appetizers (for a meal that never happens) gets the better of her.

The primary conflict -- brought to a boiling point after the crucial chat about the lovemaking scene in question begins -- occurs between Steve and Bev. Increasingly, she can't let his ignorant and intolerant remarks ride. That's despite the friction it's causing for Karen and her. When Steve's obtuseness becomes too much, she initiates a challenge that raises LaBute's laffer to its bubbly zenith. (Anthony Rodrigues is the fight consultant.)

What's LaBute really aiming at? It could be said he's using these self-impressed dummies to mock our across-the-boards dumbed-down contemporary culture. Steve is the type of fellow who'd make a case for creationism, claiming that the Wikipedia entry for evolution could have been doctored by aggressive partisans.

But what's really transpiring is that LaBute, like many writers before him, has spent time in Hollywood. He's cashed the checks, but to make himself feel better about some of the humiliations witnessed and suffered, he's chosen to mock with loving discontent what he's observed. Nathanael West did it. Clifford Odets did it. Many others have done it. Now he does it.

Extremely well, too. Steve, Karen and Missy certainly have their Tinseltown models, models that LaBute skews up to and beyond credulity limits. And so what, when the lines keep coming--lines like Karen's declaring she never forgets to tweet because it makes her feel connected, lines like Steve's noting about Hollywood that "there's a lot of history in this town," as opposed to places like London?

So what if you're convinced the locals from everywhere showing up in Hollywood movies can't quite be this insipid? (Can they?) Under Terry Kinney's lively direction, these four are too well played to be dismissed

Weller, not too long ago an intelligent gay man in Terrence McNally's Mothers and Sons, does a nifty about-face here as Van-Dyked Steve who's brimming over with middle-aged bombast. (The character is 50 but insists he's only 48.) Replacing Heather Graham on relatively short notice, Reaser swans around feigning humanitarian concern in a chicly ruffled blue gown costumer that Sarah J. Holden puts on her. She's a hoot every time she verbally attacks Bev and then goes to make nice.

Crovatin in red mini-jumpsuit (Holden has it right again) is at her peak when the starved Missy begins stuffing those tasty hors d'oeuvres in her mouth and checking to see if anyone notices. And there's Thorne, whose athleticism receives a workout when Bev decides it's futile to come back at Steve intellectually any more. She's as game and dexterous as LaBute writes her to be.

Maybe throughout The Money Shot LaBute could have been subtler in his writing, but if so, would he have scored so consistently? Probably not. Watching Hollywood get its comeuppance, the audience gets its money's worth.