Neil LaBute bears a heavy load

John Dehlin Mormon, Mormon Stories

 2007-03-16 — JewishJournal.Com: Arts in L.A.

Whether it’s business or religion, the ‘Fat Pig’ playwright tells it like it is
By Naomi Pfefferman, Arts & Entertainment Editor
Neil LaBute. Photo by Lisa Carpenter

During one of many cringe-worthy moments in Neil LaBute’s play, “Fat Pig,” a cad chastises a co-worker for dating a plus-sized woman named Helen.

“I don’t understand you taking God’s good gifts and pissing on ’em,” the cad, Carter, warns his colleague, Tom.

Tom is handsome and successful, and Helen is simply considered too fat to grace the arm of a corporate player. It doesn’t matter that she is smart and funny — she is a “cow,” a “sow” or “off-the-charts gross,” according to office personnel.

“I’m not saying … that she shouldn’t meet somebody,” Carter adds, “but it should be a fat somebody, or a bald one. Whatever. Like her.”

The scene sports the kind of nasty, brutally honest dialogue audiences have come to expect from LaBute, a playwright and filmmaker who has been both lauded and reviled for his warped morality (some would say, amorality) tales. The auteur — who will turn 44 on March 19 — has been called a misogynist and a feminist, a moralist and a misanthrope, for cruelty fests that dissect gender politics and the slimier aspects of human nature. “I do like to poke my finger in a mess and see what happens,” he says, chuckling, in his West Hollywood office one recent morning.

“Neil is a button pusher, but he does explore the underbelly of us all,” says Jo Bonney, who directed “Fat Pig’s” successful off-Broadway run in 2004 and 2005 and will direct its West Coast premiere at the Geffen Playhouse May 11-June 17.

“You emerge from his plays praising him for the metaphoric slap in the face or simply wishing you knew where he lived, so you can hunt down the bastard and deliver a literal slap of your own,” New York magazine noted in 2004.

In person, the writer is a study in contrasts and contradictions. He is alternately mischievous and irreverent, imploring and earnest — but so charming, even endearing, that he seems likelier to elicit a smile than a slap.

Heavyset and bearded, wearing a red-checked shirt and a mop of black curls, he has the kind of friendly, rumpled appearance that would no doubt raise eyebrows among the image-obsessed characters of “Fat Pig.” Until recently he was a practicing Mormon, but he left the faith after years of conflict with fellow Latter-day Saints.

“My kids were raised in the church, and they hate almost everything I write,” he says, with regret.

Yet a sign in his office unapologetically proclaims the name of his company, Contemptible Entertainment, and the writer-director looks like a proud parent as he surveys the posters from “LaButeville” that cover the walls of the room. With relish, he notes that the largest image — the one closest to his desk — depicts the nastiest character he has ever created: Chad Piercewell from LaBute’s 1997 debut feature film, “In the Company of Men.” In that movie, the fictional Piercewell convinces a colleague to seduce and dump a deaf secretary as a symbolic act of revenge on all women — and for sport.

Other posters advertise LaButian fare such as the sexual musical chairs saga, “Your Friends and Neighbors,” in which a brute excoriates a lover for bleeding on his 300-count cotton sheets, among other not-so-friendly exchanges. “bash: latterday plays,” spotlights murderous Mormons; “Some Girl(s)” follows a soon-to-be-wed commitmentphobe who visits ex-girlfriends to “apologize” (and to seek material for his new book); and “The Mercy Seat” revolves around a man who would have died in the World Trade Center attacks had he not skipped work for adulterous sex.

“I wouldn’t necessarily want all these guys as friends,” LaBute admits. “They’re extremes; I often write in extremes.”

But then again, he hopes he’s not just a “purveyor of [grotesquerie] — that it’s not just, ‘I really like to see people suffer,'” he says.

LaBute prefers to view himself as a chronicler of transgression, and of how ordinary people can tumble into ethically questionable territory. He believes in what the late Holocaust scholar Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil” and says he “ascribes to the effect that banality can have on an audience — that cool, calculated moving forward, one step at a time, until you cross the line. It’s the insidiousness of it, you know; it doesn’t take much to go there.”

As John Lahr once wrote in The New Yorker: LaBute “brings to his observations about human nature something that other contemporary American writers have not articulated with such single-minded authority: a sense of sin.”

To understand LaBute’s preoccupation with sin — and casual brutality — one has only to ask him about his childhood in a town outside Spokane, Wash. The model for many of his male “beasts,” he says, was in part his father, Richard, a volatile truck driver who infused the house with a sense of menace. The elder LaBute was also handsome, charming and seductive. But when LaBute’s father returned home, the writer recalls, “You never knew what would set him off, and it was that unpredictability that created fear.”

Occasionally the trucker’s tantrums escalated into punching or slapping LaBute and his mother.

“My father may well have been bipolar, and helped by medication, but he wasn’t someone who would have ever sought that kind of help,” LaBute says. “He was always a person who blamed the other party…. I know my father had a rough upbringing, but there’s always an excuse, unfortunately.”

Because LaBute’s home was “a tough house and a small house to grow up in,” he sought safe havens outside the family circle. He escaped into his school’s theater department — and into services and Bible study classes he attended, alone, at a nondenominational church walking distance from his house. “[The atmosphere] gave me a sense of quiet, of peace and especially of community — everything I had been missing growing up,” he says.

LaBute chose to attend the Mormon Brigham Young University, in Provo, Utah, because, “It seemed as far away as I could get from my father, not just geographically, but spiritually — a place he wouldn’t follow.”

LaBute converted to Mormonism in the 1980s, before he married Lisa Gore, a family therapist who was deeply involved in the faith and eventually held a church office.

“I was never the most devout or straightforward of the flock,” he says. “I like to say ‘I was practicing, although I needed more practice.'”

“But I don’t think I would have stayed had I not gotten something out of the [religion],” he adds. “I certainly had questions about the church, but I didn’t find its structure or history to be problematic.” LaBute cites the Mormon belief that theological history was engraved on golden plates and buried in ancient times: “While that might sound outlandish to members of other religions, I’m like, ‘Yeah, what about an ark of the covenant? A Garden of Eden?’ The Mormon stories are no more outlandish.”

When LaBute returned to Brigham Young to earn his doctorate in the early 1990s, he squabbled with officials who found his work brilliant but scandalous.

Administrators locked him out of the theater to prevent the staging of “Lepers” (later the play and the film “Your Friends and Neighbors”). LaBute was allowed into the building only to give an exam in a class he was teaching — and then he cheekily cut the test short in order to show his play.

At Brigham Young, he also directed a student production of David Mamet’s “Sexual Perversity in Chicago,” after removing the expletives to meet university standards.

“Mamet would’ve been horrified,” he says. “But I tried to maintain the sense of the play without the overt language. Even to advertise it I had to create a subversive kind of poster; it was so lavishly decorated that you couldn’t read the title.”

The tension between LaBute’s work and his faith also played out in his personal life. In the late 1990s, his wife phoned him on the first day of his “Neighbors” shoot, to beg him to cancel the production. LaBute has been reported to have said that his work created great stress in his marriage, but he was not about to let anyone dictate what he should write. (LaBute said he is still married, but declined to say anything further.)

Mormon officials mostly left him alone until his 1999 trio of playlets, “bash” (later a 2001 Showtime production), depicted clearly Mormon characters hurting babies and homosexuals. LaBute was summoned before a 15-person tribunal and interrogated.

“It was upsetting because I felt misunderstood and misread,” he says. “I understand that Mormons have a defined sense of what art should be and the kind of art that Mormons should be making. It should be uplifting, even if there is a darkness to it. I agreed that one can write dark things that still show a moral side, and I said that’s what I think I do.”

LaBute said he had intended “bash” to show how even devout people can commit atrocities; he made the characters Mormon “because I was too lazy to research other religions.” He agreed to refrain from writing about Mormons ever again.

Nevertheless, LaBute was disfellowshipped, which he describes as “a kind of limbo where you can work back into the good standing of the church or toward excommunication. In my case, the issue raised enough questions and made me angry enough that I did nothing about it for a while.”

The author decided to withdraw his church membership around 2005, when he was informed that his excommunication was imminent. “It was like quitting before you get fired,” he says. “But I realized that it was actually better for my kids to have a father who wasn’t a member of the church than what they considered a bad member.”

The decision was also best for LaBute: “When I finally focused on the fact that I was making R-rated movies, and Mormons aren’t supposed to attend them, I had to say ‘I’m hustling here, I have to choose one or the other,'” he recalls. “You go along, and you hope nobody busts you on it, but then you bust yourself. It wasn’t really a brave choice, it was just a choice, and in the end it was relatively selfish — I was just doing what I wanted to do.” The conflict between one’s personal and private life is also a central theme in “Fat Pig.” In the play, the fictional Tom may give up the love of his life because he can’t stand the heckling from his co-workers.

“The play explores how we struggle with our convictions and whether we can follow our heart rather than our fears,” director Bonney says. “It makes us question how we behave in groups and the way we judge people.” “Fat Pig” began percolating as LaBute lost 60 pounds on a low-carb, heavy-workout regimen several years ago.

“I wasn’t feeling so hot. I looked like shit. I was tired of wearing the same pants,” he writes in the introduction to the play. He browbeat himself with the mantra, “Stop eating so damn much, you fat bastard!” As his weight dropped, he wrote, he “discovered the preening fool who was living just beneath the surface of my usual self.” LaBute surreptitiously patted his behind to see if it had grown firmer.

“I also noticed that I was writing less and less,” he says.

Eventually, the author, a self-proclaimed stress eater, returned to his Pringles and the aforementioned pants.

LaBute says he’s particularly curious about how Angelenos will respond to “Pig” because “this city is very much about beautiful people trying to look more beautiful.”

“But the play is primarily a study of human weakness,” he insists.

“Tom is not someone who misuses his power, like many of my other characters. He hurts a couple of people along the way, but it’s because he lacks strength. His worst crimes are being a follower, being soft, someone who can’t stand up for what he believes in.”

So what is LaBute’s weakness of choice (besides junk food)?

“I invest much more time in work than in living,” he says, sheepishly. “On the page, people get bloodied, but I pull the strings. It’s a safer place to be.”