Neil LaBute. You might have heard of him, maybe in anger, perhaps in appreciation.
He is one of the country’s hottest and most controversial playwrights, penning twisted stories hinging on last-minute plot twists to expose the worst in humanity.
LaBute, who also directs, is most remembered for the 1997 dramatic film “In the Company of Men,” in which two men play with a deaf, female co-worker. He also authored “Fat Pig,” about a man who is attracted to fat women, and “This is How it Goes,” currently starring Ben Stiller as a racist.
This week, the controversial playwright’s work came to Forest Park, as Circle Theatre debuted “The Shape of Things,” directed by Kristin Gehring.
The story is a play on the old Adam and Eve story, but with a very LaBute twist: Evelyn isn’t in it for love, or even for money”to her it is an art project; and poor Adam jumps through every hoop imaginable to please the warped vixen who simply wants to remake Adam as a work of art.
For LaBute his stories represent a new twist on familiar stories.
“I am not out there writing science fiction,” he said. “I am looking to create a story that is interesting, that people haven’t seen before because on the surface it is a conventional boy meets girls story, [so I ask myself] how can I tell that story again and find a new way of telling it.”
These twists, he said, are what make the plays worth having people take the time to go see.
“I feel the responsibility to be interesting in my storytelling,” he said.
“In terms of the worst side [of humanity], people are capable of that so it is fascinating,” he said. “I am not a documentarian, I am not suggesting this is how all people are or that I am trying to concentrate on how the world operates. I am trying to tell a story that is interesting and new, and to create drama. I have to pick a fight, to put two or more people in conflict with each other. That is the nature of the game and it is a game that I am interested in.”
The soft-spoken playwright said, jokingly, that the plays could almost be seen as a venting mechanism for him.
“I am not a very combative person in real life so it is an outlet for me to write it on the page,” he said, laughing. “I just made up the story [in “The Shape of Things”], but I don’t think it is so far fetched that people can’t look at it and say gosh I knew somebody who is like that.”
LaBute added that what drives him is the simple act of writing, coupled with the joy he gets in seeing people’s first and often visceral reaction to the work he produces.
“The actual act drives me, I love to write,” he said. “I love that creative process and I have been lucky enough in the last few years to work both in film and theatre. I am driven by the pleasure in doing this, by the actual act in creation not by the accolades or how much money it makes.”
The audience, however, is still at the core of what drives him.
“I don’t think I have ever had more pleasure than the simple act of being in rehearsal, or the couple of hours you spend at night watching an audience watch what you are doing,” he said. “That is really the most immediate and truest response. People can come up to you afterwards and say whatever they want to say, but in that moment where they are watching it and they suddenly laugh or are surprised or are sad”those are the moments when you know what you are doing has connected.”
LaBute also said every production of a play breathes new life into an old story.
“Particularly with dramatic form, plays, well they are really never finished,” he said. “You hope they are literature, that somebody can sit down and read it and enjoy, but I think there is something extra added to it only when it is performed.”
In this respect, he said, he has a great deal of admiration for the actors.
“I don’t consider myself an actor and it is always amazing to me to see how they do what they do,” he said. “They transport us, we let ourselves go. There is a kind of wonderful trick to it, you’d love to know [how they do it], but, really, you don’t want to know.”
Director Kristin Gehring is the calendar editor of REVIEW.