“Well,” I said to my wife when I got back from seeing This Is How It Goes at Aurora Theatre Company, “that sure was a Neil LaBute play.” The playwright and filmmaker is notorious for his provocative portraits of human cruelty that, for all their critical acclaim, have left him wide open to accusations of misanthropy, misogyny, and any other “mis” that comes to mind. In fact his plays got him “disfellowshipped” (one step shy of excommunicated) from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which he later left.

LaBute’s plays have been proved popular in the Bay Area; San Francisco Playhouse just finished a run last month of his reasons to be pretty, in which a guy’s thoughtless comment that his girlfriend has a “regular” face compared to a pretty co-worker sends things spiraling out of control. But it was Aurora that gave LaBute his Bay Area professional debut with 2002’s The Shape of Things, about a woman completely redesigning her new boyfriend, and revisited his work with 2009’s Fat Pig, in which a guy’s friends keep making fun of his plus-size girlfriend. Now artistic director Tom Ross, who also helmed Shape, takes on This Is How It Goes, which debuted off-Broadway in 2005 and only now makes its way to the Bay Area — perhaps because it gets awfully uncomfortable when one of America’s thorniest playwrights turns his eye to racism.

But that only accounts for part of the impact of an intricate and challenging play that makes you awfully queasy one moment and then makes you laugh despite yourself the next moment. One interesting metatheatrical aspect is clear from the beginning, which is that it’s a story being told to us by a man who makes no secret of being an unreliable narrator. In fact, he says early on, cheerfully, “I guess I’m an unreliable narrator.” Played with aw-shucks folksiness and endearing social awkwardness by Gabriel Marin, this unnamed guide (just called “Man” in the program) starts a scene and then jumps out of it almost immediately because he forgot to tell us something. (Kurt Landisman’s lighting is invaluable not just for altering the mood but also setting the asides apart from the scenes.) But the play is also brutally effective in the twists and suckerpunches it sends the viewer’s way, about which the less said the better.

This is how it goes: After many years away, the man has just moved back home to a small town in the Midwest. There he happens to run into the woman he had a huge crush on in high school and hasn’t seen in 15 years. In that time he’s gone from the fat, funny kid people used to pick on to a physically fit guy who recently gave up being a lawyer because, he says, it didn’t suit him. He finds out his former classmate and object of desire Belinda is married to Cody, who was the popular star athlete and only black kid in school, and has since grown up to be the richest man in town as well. But they’re not particularly happily married, and our narrator, renting a spare room above their garage seems unlikely to help matters.

Ross’s staging is simply superb, due in no small part to a phenomenal cast. Carrie Paff nicely captures how quietly conflicted Belinda is and how accustomed she is to being unhappy, often responding to her husband’s volatile moods with little more than a pained look. Aldo Billingslea’s Cody is a real piece of work, bursting with confidence and bristling with hostility. A charismatic and overbearing alpha male, he’s quick to take offense and callous about offending others, and he seems to feel threatened by this jovial, awkwardly joking dork who’s hanging around his wife all of a sudden. And of course he’s right to be suspicious; the man still clearly carries a torch for Belinda, he and Cody don’t like each other, and despite his gentle, smiley demeanor, he’s made it clear to us from the start that he can’t really be trusted. And the worse things get, the more unnerving Marin’s unflappable cheerfulness as the narrator becomes.

Laura Hazlett’s costumes help set the scene with simple suburban outfits and some sharp suits for Cody. Kim A.Tolman’s set is both remarkably striking and perplexing: The towering rear wall is papered with manuscript pages, and a row of arches stands above one column as if waiting for the other columns to arrive. The man does claim to be an aspiring playwright, so the pages may have something to do with that, but it’s hard to know what it all symbolizes.

It’s a play that’s certain to piss some people off, and in fact it already has. At one of the previews, an audience member reportedly walked out while yelling at the actors. But for all its gut-churning moments of naked unlikeability, it’s an awfully sharp and powerfully written piece of theater executed flawlessly, and should provide ample fodder for post-show conversations and arguments. Some will find it an unflinching look at the dark side of human nature and socialization, and others may just find it loathsome. That’s how it goes.

This Is How It Goes runs through July 21, 2013 at Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley. For tickets and information, visit auroratheatre.org.

All photos by David Allen.

Aurora’s ‘This Is How It Goes’ Goes Uncomfortably Far 26 June,2013Sam Hurwitt

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