Word Play, Rough Play

Alice Eve and Stanley Tucci in Neil LaBute's "Some Velvet Morning." | ROGIER STOFFERS/ TRIBECA FILM

Alice Eve and Stanley Tucci in Neil LaBute's “Some Velvet Morning.” | ROGIER STOFFERS/ TRIBECA FILM

Playwright and filmmaker Neil LaBute has crafted an absorbing, albeit stagy two-hander in “Some Velvet Morning.” The drama unfolds entirely in a Brooklyn residence owned by Velvet (Alice Eve). One morning, her ex-lover Fred (Stanley Tucci) arrives at her doorstep, luggage in hand, exclaiming, “I’m here, with all my stuff!” Fred has left his wife of 24 years for Velvet, a high-class prostitute he once frequented. They met when she slipped a note in his pocket at his son’s graduation.

The film presents the delicate dance of these two lovers reuniting after four years apart. At first, Fred nervously tries to reestablish a connection, telling some unfunny jokes. Velvet, caught unawares by his arrival, mentions an appointment she has, hoping to extricate herself from the immediate situation. The story has a seesaw quality, with the characters letting the power shift back and forth between them as they recall their past and consider a possible future together.

“I did what I said I would do,” Fred states, suggesting that means he finally left his wife. But in reality he means that during their extended absence, he dialed things way down, cutting back on the emails, the phone calls, and the gifts he once sent his mistress. When Fred asks Velvet’s advice on what he should do now that they are finally together, she instructs him to call his wife.

Stanley Tucci, Alice Eve dance nimbly in vintage Neil LaBute

Such is the dynamic between this older man and younger woman. “Some Velvet Morning” captures honesty and anger, sarcasm and condescension between Fred and Velvet as they play games of verbal volleyball. She lobs a comment about “seeing” other men — one of whom is Fred’s son — and he rolls his eyes in exasperation. He asks her to complete her unfinished sentences, especially her ultimatums. In what may be Velvet’s most priceless response, she tells the insistent Fred how she got her name. He does not like the answer. It is a doozey of a response — and typical of the misanthropic LaBute.

The language between the lovers is precise. Words and what is really behind them are a good portion of what animates the writer and director in this take on the battle of the sexes. When Fred confesses his love for Velvet, she sheds tears. But that may be as much a defense mechanism of hers as it is an unfiltered emotional response. The issues of truth and trust come into play repeatedly throughout “Some Velvet Morning.” Fred repeatedly says “Really?,” often in disbelief at what Velvet tells him — whether that she is meeting his son for lunch or that she can’t really see him again until a week from Sunday. Disbelief quickly becomes rage, and the film crackles when the two become irate with each other. “When has love ever been fair?,” Fred pointedly asks Velvet, letting the question hang — for the audience to answer.

LaBute’s script is strong, but not airtight. Viewers might find certain moments forced or phony, but discussing those would be a spoiler. And despite the fact that Velvet is a strong, independent woman, the film is not without elements of misogyny, which LaBute has been accused of in the past.

As director, LaBute keeps the drama engrossing throughout. Framing the characters in mirrors and doorways provides added dimension to the emotions they express. When Velvet, in a gesture of comfort, places her hand on Fred’s knee — the characters’ first moment of physical contact — it is surprisingly intimate. Later, as he negotiates a kiss from her, it is a tense and slightly erotic exchange.

It is great to see Tucci playing a leading role, and he does so with gusto. Artfully using his wiry body, he envelopes Velvet when they sit close together on a bench and shakes his legs as he gets riled up about something. Tucci can also deliver a jolt — breaking a trinket in a moment of rage or, at several points, mentioning his cock. When he speaks vulgarly and without shame about sex, his authenticity as a character is striking.

Eve’s performance matches if not betters her co-star’s. With a posh English accent, bleached blond hair, pale skin, bright red lipstick, and a truly fabulous red dress, Velvet is very alluring. It is easy to see why Fred would be attracted to her, and also why she may be less keen on reciprocating for love rather than money. Eve manages to make Velvet seductive yet vulnerable. But when Fred punctures her fragility, she comes back stronger.

It almost goes without saying that a film written by LaBute will have a twist. But even if you see the reveal coming, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Fred and Velvet are vying for sympathy and dignity in a story that explores morality, love, hope, and guilt. That’s what will keep audiences rapt as “Some Velvet Morning” unfolds.

SOME VELVET MORNING | Directed by Neil LaBute | Tribeca Film | Opens Dec. 13 | Village East Cinema, 189 Second Ave. at 12th St. | villageeastcinema.com