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The moment of truth
Neil LaBute | Playwright strives for the strangeness of nonfiction

Publication: Chicago Sun-Times
Published: September 14, 2007
Client: Profiles Theatre


Those unfamiliar with the world of Neil LaBute -- whose works for the stage include "bash: latter day plays," "The Shape of Things," "The Mercy Seat" and "Fat Pig," and whose movie credits (as writer and/or director) include "In the Company of Men," "Your Friends and Neighbors" and "Nurse Betty" -- might get a sense of his modus operandi by considering the chilling real-life story of Kate and Gerry McCann. They are, of course, the attractive British couple whose tiny, beautiful daughter Madeleine "disappeared" during a vacation in Portugal in May and who, more recently, were both dubbed "suspects" in the case.

There is, invariably, a similar kind of gotcha moment in LaBute's plays and films -- a moment when the carefully constructed veneer of character and social intercourse are subjected to a blistering strobe-light treatment, and when the true awfulness and depravity of human behavior is stripped bare to the not-so-attractive truth.

"What interests me is what we are willing to do, who we are willing to hurt, and how far we'll go, or not go, in certain situations," said LaBute, whose plays will be the sole focus of Profiles Theatre's 2007-2008 season.

Profiles is the savvy Chicago storefront operation that in recent seasons has had great success with two LaBute productions -- "Fat Pig" (about a man who falls in love with an unfashionably heavy woman but lacks the courage to commit to her) and "autobahn" (a series of short pieces, all set in cars). It's the kind of place that makes LaBute feel most at home.

"This is how I started doing theater," said LaBute, who was born in Detroit in 1963, grew up in Spokane, Wash., studied theater at Brigham Young University (where a complicated relationship with the Mormon church began) and now lives in the Chicago area. "They [Profiles] approach the art as I approach it. And, of course, you tend to like people who like you, and who continue to knock at your door, and then do the plays well.

"The fact is, I always find something of value in almost every production of a play of mine I see, and I've seen quite a number of them around the world. The choices made might not always be mine, or even exactly what is on the page, but I can live by others' choices, unless I have to fight for something crucial."

In a sense, all of LaBute's stories are about truth and moral values, those things that seem to so often preoccupy and undo politicians. But asked if he is ever tempted to deal with a specific political case, he says, "The essential nature of human dynamics and gender politics interest me more. I suppose the play of mine that was most relevant to current events was 'The Mercy Seat' [the tale of an adulterous husband who might just find his escape in the events of Sept. 11, 2001]. But I don't scour the newspapers for material.

"The stories are more from my imagination. Yet it always amazes me that no matter how much stuff I can come up with, I am trumped by real life all the time."

About being worried by the sort of over-exposure an entire season of his plays might result in, LaBute is philosophical.

"Well, they will be spaced out over the year, so it's not really a marathon," said LaBute. "It's more like a concept album or a book of short stories, or that wonderful cycle of 1970s films by Eric Rohmer, the six 'Moral Tales' [including "Claire's Knee" and "My Night at Maud's]. It's a whole universe that allows you to see the quirks and obsessions."

LaBute spent the summer directing a film -- "Lakeview Terrace," starring Samuel Jackson -- about a black cop in Los Angeles who tries to drive out the interracial couple that has just become his suburban neighbor.

"Race tends to be something that just keeps coming up for me as a writer," he said.



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