Playwright-director Neil LaBute cuts an imposing figure.
A heavyset man with curly locks, bulky black-framed eyeglasses, and a ten o’clock shadow, he dominated the stage of TheTimesCenter on Monday, March 23 when he sat with New York Times theatre reporter Patrick Healy to discuss his trilogy of plays focused on physical appearances, which began with The Shape of Things (2001) and Fat Pig (2004) and concludes with reasons to be pretty.
LaBute was joined on-stage by a talented group of actors who appeared intermittently to perform excerpts from this trilogy. These special guests included the cast of reasons to be pretty (Marin Ireland, Steven Pasquale, Piper Perabo, and Thomas Sadoski) as well as Gretchen Mol and Kerry Washington.
LaBute began by discussing his plays’ characters, mostly creatures based on people he understands, summoned out of his childhood growing up with both white- and blue-collar people, third-shift workers of limited means who represent a world he acknowledges that he “could easily have been a part of,” having grown up in Michigan and Washington state.
“Looking for something different,” LaBute attended Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City on a scholarship, a time during which he converted to Mormonism because of his religious surroundings. While at BYU, he was inundated by religion in a way he never had been before. “My mother was Methodist,” he kidded, “my father was Lee Harvey Oswald.”
The experience would go on to influence his plays, most notably The Shape of Things, which centers around characters who are students at a fictional liberal arts college in a conservative Midwestern town. Eventually, LaBute was disfellowshipped by the church. “You know how breakups are,” he said, however, acknowledging the influence the Church still holds over him. “The Church and I are still having sex.”
Mormonism ultimately had a great impact on his writing. Though there were great limitations within the drama department concerning censorship and morality, LaBute found creative ways to bend the rules, sneaking edited scenes from David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago into the classroom.
He also acknowledged faith’s influence on his plays, particularly the “Old Testament sensibilities” that shaped plays like his evening of short plays, bash, which caused a stir within the Church of Latter Day Saints because it inspired misleading newspaper headlines like “Murderous Mormons.”
His interest in antiquity, particularly Greek drama, also inspired his fascination with the monologue form. He calls monologues “the best tool in the bucket,” relishing the idea of recounting off-stage action, of somehow indirectly saying to the audience “I’m going to tell you something tonight, and you’re going to be sorry you came.”
In crafting the dialogue contained in his plays, he admits that his main talent is in having a good ear. “Writers are generally good listeners,” he explains. He would describe the best dialogue as right rather than real, infused with “a language that you hope sounds incredibly real and yet sounds nothing like people talk,” citing Mamet, Sam Shepard, and Caryl Churchill as examples of writers whose stylized dialogue nonetheless feels absolutely right in the context of the on-stage worlds their plays create.
When writing The Shape of Things, the first play in his trilogy, LaBute, who’d been working in London at the time, was inspired by British conceptual artists like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, whose works both incorporate found objects and the idea of appropriation.
LaBute hadn’t considered the idea of crafting a trilogy until it ensued that Fat Pig and reasons to be pretty organically followed a thematic interest of his in the idea of physical appearances, sparked by the character of Evelyn’s elaborate scheme in The Shape of Things and carried through the arc of the trilogy. Though his plays are often cast with attractive young actors, he said, what interests him is the way beauty can turn on his characters, often offering unexpected results.
LaBute’s latest play, reasons also marks his Broadway debut, currently in previews at the Lyceum Theatre after a successful run last summer at the Lucille Lortel Theatre downtown, in a production by MCC Theater, a company that has produced many of LaBute’s plays off-Broadway.
Part of the inspiration for reasons to be pretty stemmed from a photograph his mother sent him. LaBute was fascinated by the tightness of his father’s grip around his mother’s waist, the possessiveness he could sense merely from the image. Though taking a step back from his plays allows him to see elements of his father’s influence, however, for each new work he ultimately seeks out a “blank page” on which he can create a new story, unimpeded by directly autobiographical elements.
As far as the transition to Broadway from the Lortel Theatre off-Broadway, LaBute considers the major shift one of economics. What were the “simple pleasures of putting on a show” last summer have become nagging figures as the producers and creative team worry about the show’s financial future.
Changes have also been made to the play as a result of its transfer. Four monologues, one originally given to each of the play’s characters, hae been cut, victims of the playwright’s knife after critics pinpointed these soliloquys as weaknesses during the off-Broadway run. Consequently, bits of the speeches have been seeded into the other scenes as a way of retaining their thematic content without bringing the action to a standstill. LaBute, who has a sentimental attachment to these monologues, hopes that both versions of the play will be published to allow for future productions to decide which to use.
He considers the character of Greg in reasons to be pretty as one of the first characters he’s ever written who “grew up.” In contrast, most of his characters are more sadistic. In particular he cites the leading characters in his early films In the Company of Men and Friends and Neighbors, both of which embody elements of even more blunt emotional cruelty.
Still, he admits that the most vicious of his characters are outdone by the current headlines and new stories. Even he is unable to come up with stories the likes of the Fritzl father-daughter imprisonment case in Austria that’s been a recent tabloid fascination.
His next project is a departure for LaBute – a remake of the recent British film Death at a Funeral – which will star comedian Chris Rock, who’s cowritten the revised screenplay. LaBute, who’s never been involved in a flat-out comedic project, seems to relish the idea of working on something unabashedly funny. It should be noted, however, that even his trilogy of image-conscious plays finds humor even in the blackest human situations. That’s what LaBute is good at – mining ordinary situations for the untapped comedic potential – and scorching an audience while he’s at it.
He cites an example of his spontaneous incitement to write – overhearing conversations at a Denny’s restaurant. He’s often inspired by the idea that at any moment, relationships around him are changing. “If one were to be having a Grand Slam breakfast, let’s say, three or four booths away, lives are changing, and you can’t actually hear what they’re saying. It’s amazing what’s going on around you. When you pry like I do, you move three or four booths closer. You don’t want to misquote them.”
reasons to be pretty, currently in previews, opens at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre on 2 April 2009