Neil LaBute Q&A: The Controversial Playwright Talks About His L.A. Theater Takeover


Fans of safe and saccharine theater in Los Angeles better run and hide this summer because acclaimed and controversial playwright Neil LaBute doesn't just have one production currently in town -- he has two!

Vilified and labeled as a misanthrope and misogynist thanks to his unflinching brand of art, indeed his plays and films have shocked many, including films In the Company of Men, Your Friends & Neighbors, Nurse Betty and The Shape of Things. It's interesting to have LaBute's unrelenting drama, often filled with self-absorbed characters and very poignant and disturbingly social themes, takeover Los Angeles theater.

Continuing with his beauty trilogy in Reasons to Be Pretty at the Geffen Playhouse, LaBute takes on society's ongoing fixation with beauty and in particular one man's inability to say the right thing -- ever. When Greg makes an innocuous, off-handed remark about his girlfriend Steph, it triggers a battle by which their relationship will forever be defined. Tony nominated for Best Play, Reasons to Be Pretty continues a series that includes The Shape of Things, Fat Pig (a previous Geffen Playhouse hit) and Reasons to Be Happy.

Meanwhile, across town on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood, LaBute's personal In a Dark Dark House focuses on the many effects of sexual abuse and the way society might be expected to react to abused victims.

While LaBute has recently directed episodes of AMC's "Hell on Wheels" as well as the good natured ensemble comedy Death at a Funeral possibly giving way to a kinder and gentler LaBute, it's his taut dramas that have caused critics and some audiences to label him as a pariah.

Who can forget Aaron Eckhart's character Chad in In the Company of Men hatefully blather, "Women. Nice ones, the most frigid of the race, it doesn't matter in the end. Inside they're all the same meat and gristle and hatred just simmering."

Or that other gem of his, "Never trust anything that can bleed for a week and not die."

You can see why LaBute is a lightning rod, even if the man himself doesn't.

Your name and work evoke a strong gut reaction. Do you consider no reaction the worst kind of reaction?
I probably do. I would think just about anybody would feel that way. We're taught at some age to always want positive reaction but it makes sense when you're out there asking questions, which is a big part of what playwrights are supposed to do, not always having answers but at least asking questions. I think, depending on the questions, it's very important to take the temperature of people. If people think you have nothing to say or you're of little interest that would probably be the worst.

If everybody were to love your work, is that not the reaction you would want either?
I'm not the kid in class who only wants negative attention, that's certainly not me. I'll take nothing but positive attention, that's OK. I feel that I've had almost negative attention for some things. I know what it feels like on both ends. You're always trying to connect and tell stories that are different than what everyone else has. I'm always looking to connect with an audience, and yet, sometimes it's negative but through that negativity sometimes you've left them with something to think about. I think both sides of that can be useful.

In college, some of your plays where shut down immediately after their premieres. How do you define success--just opening?
Getting in front of an audience, in this world, is the requirement for the endgame, at least for theater. Once you've written something you're part of the way there. You do need to get in front of an audience. To have a connection with an audience is ultimately the goal.

With everything you've accomplished, is there still room for you to grow as an artist?
Of course, that's why I probably go back to teach as often as possible, just because you learn a ton from teaching people. There are so many parts of this world that I'm interested in. I get more interested in editing as I work in film; I haven't done much television and that world is new to me. Broadway is still a creature that I'm weary of. Even at my age, there are a lot of aspects that I have to learn or try to fail at.

Your name sparks a reaction. What's the biggest misconception about you?
The ones that I hear upon meeting people sometimes are, 'You're much nicer than I thought you'd be.' I wonder what it was exactly they were thinking. They imagine you're the worst. They never seem to think you're the best at what you can imagine. You were able to think of something, therefore, that must be you. Also, for the last seventeen - eighteen years, there's been this label of misogyny that started with In the Company of Men, that's a hard one to kick because people label you and once they've done that, they make it very hard for you. If they see something else, they'll say, that's no as misogynistic. For a movie that so many people actually saw as being a critical essay of men, being labeled misogynistic I thought was strange.

Is it fair that 17 years later people so closely identify you with that film?
I don't think it would hurt to reassess things every five years or so. That would be nice of people to check in on that sort of thing. I know how it happens but it's a bummer when you don't agree with it.

Can you talk about the power of the written word and what the various outlets mean to you?

Theater is still a place that allows you to say anything you want to say and take on anything that is of interest to you. There is no taboo, not for me at least. There's nothing that shouldn't be taken on.

Film, I think, is a medium that people still see as a more popular form of entertainment. Television, I think, is becoming a great place for writers and storytellers. I like this idea of telling multiple stories about a set of characters. I always turn the page and write about a new group of people. For a writer, that's a really interesting task to take on.

You have two shows currently playing in Los Angeles. What's that like?
They're two very different ones as well. I'm really excited by the people who are in them and also the directors.

What originally inspired these two productions?

You never know. I ended up with this third play in this trilogy about beauty; and I knew I wanted to do something about beauty and the way that we'll change ourselves or change for others. In a Dark Dark House was just a story that came to me, not thinking about my own past so much as filtering what I knew about the lives that these characters have and then wanting to tell a story about siblings.

You've called In a Dark Dark House very personal, yet this version was tweaked from its original form when it premiered in New York. Is it still as personal now?
I think so. The work that was done honed the structure and I moved things around and ultimately I think this version is the best structure of the play. It's not autobiographical but it's touching on things that were close to my life.

So plays are never finite?
Oh God no! I just wrote a new monologue for Amber Tamblyn in Reasons to Be Pretty. She had some questions and thoughts and it led me to write something. They're finished for now until somebody opens the book again and you start working on it again.

Reasons to Be Pretty marks your fourth collaboration with the Geffen Playhouse. What do you like about that theater?
It's nice to have a home somewhere. Because you can spread yourself so far around and with so many people, it's always great to go back to a place or group of people who you know and work with. It's great when the Geffen is interested in me doing something again. I love the space but I also love the people who run the place.

Are you happy playing in intimate theaters or do you want Broadway or the Pantages, which is the big theater in Los Angeles?
I tend to write things that are often pretty small cast and I love small theaters. That said, there are things you write that you think could be for Broadway but I tend not to think or write in those terms. Sadly, what usually drives people to think something would be good for Broadway is the fact that they have some star who might be interested. Rare is the play that I've written that I think it can only fit on a stage for a thousand people. They're often very intimate character studies.

You always get great talent in your plays, from David Duchovny to Ed Harris. What attracts big name actors to your work or is it that they just have to work?
It's probably a mix and that's OK for me. I think actors do, at some point, get a sense of a person who like actors and writes for actors, and is interested in them. I certainly feel that I've always liked actors and they get a buzz off me that says that. I never tend to write for people, as many good actors as I've had, I always have written just for characters and then good actors will appear. But like you said, some actors just want to work.

What do you hope audiences take away from a production of yours?
I just hope that there's something that they find there, whether it is characters or themes. I tend not to write about themes so much, but I love the idea that somebody in today's world, because we've created this kind of speed that we devour information these days, that any time that somebody goes to see your work and thinks about if for any length of time is a total victory.

Both Neil LaBute productions play through August 31. In a Dark Dark House plays at the Matrix Theatre, and Reasons to Be Pretty plays at the Geffen Playhouse.

Photo courtesy of Aaron Eckhart