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Neil LaBute’s ‘bash’ is empty exploitation

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Television has rarely seen characters as LDS-specific as those in "bash: latter day plays," which premieres Monday at 9 p.m. on Showtime. Which should not come as any great surprise, given that the trilogy of monologues was written for the stage (and directed for TV) by BYU graduate Neil LaBute.

And the man behind movies such as "In the Company of Men," "Your Friends and Neighbors" and the upcoming "Nurse Betty" tosses off Mormon terms with ease — the characters talk about wards, stakes, elders, bishops, missions, farewells, Relief Society, even preference dances. And there are specific-to-Utah references ranging from Orem to Salt Lake City, from Sundance to the U.

All of this is blended into three thoroughly unpleasant tales that manipulate and shock, seemingly without reason.

It's not that it's offensive to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, although it is that in spots. The problem with "bash" is that it's offensive to anyone of any faith and even to people without faith. It masquerades as something with deep meaning when it's simply disturbing for the sake of being disturbing.

Generally, I don't give away as much of the plot of a show as I'm about to here. So if you don't want to know what happens in "bash," STOP READING RIGHT NOW.

"A Gaggle of Saints" is a double monologue about a couple in their early 20s (Paul Rudd and Calista Flockhart) who are recounting the story of their romance and their big date in New York City. While she's back at the Plaza Hotel, he goes out with his buddies and savagely beats a gay man to death. He recounts the attack in gruesome detail, then compounds the horror with a bit that's offensive to anyone of any religious belief, not just Mormons — telling of one of his friends landing the final blow and then using consecrated oil to bless the victim as the three young men "all start giggling like schoolboys."

"Medea Redux" features a teenager (Flockhart) sitting in a police interrogation room who recounts how, at the age of 13, she was seduced by one of her teachers. She gives birth to a son and tracks the ex-teacher down several years later. Consumed with the need for revenge, she lets the now-married man fall in love with his son — and then she murders the child by pushing an electrical appliance into the bath with him. (This particular tale has only a slight tie to anything LDS — the teenager speaks briefly at one point of "living up in Utah . . . with some Mormon relatives.")

"Iphegenia in Orem" is about a sexist — even misogynistic — young LDS businessman (Ron Eldard) who, early in his monologue, recounts how he and his wife lost an infant daughter when the child suffocated in the quilt on which she was sleeping. Later, he reveals that he could have saved her but he hastened her death because he was certain he was about to lose his job and worried about providing for his family.

The play has problems as a TV production beyond its content. Filmed before an audience at a theater in Beverly Hills, it's incredibly stagy — it looks like actors playing parts, not like people opening up their hearts.

(And, while Rudd and Eldard acquit themselves well, Flockhart — TV's "Ally McBeal" — is overmatched. A half hour of watching her pretend to be a teenager is like having your skin scraped with a cheese grater.)

What's the point of "bash"? Apparently, that people can do terrible things. That's been a theme of sorts in LaBute's earlier work, including "Your Friends and Neighbors" and "In the Company of Men."

But it all seems pointless beyond the shock value that it provides. And none of it rings particularly true — especially not to anyone who has ever been a parent.

Maybe I just don't get it. Maybe this is great art. Or, at least, what the arty crowd thinks is great art.

But if cruelty, violence and killing are art, I don't want to get it.

E-mail: pierce@desnews.com