After showing a clip of male Democratic presidential candidates verbally attacking Hillary Clinton during a 2007 debate, The Daily Show's Jon Stewart deadpanned, "It was like the most boring Neil LaBute play ever." Accustomed to being called out for the misogynistic themes he explored as writer and director of the films In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors, LaBute appreciated the pop-culture name-drop. Then the flip side of the quip sunk in. "I was trying to decide what he'd pick as the second-most boring Neil LaBute play," he says, "because that one I actually wrote."
It's a safe bet Stewart wouldn't select reasons to be pretty, an explosive comment on America's beauty-obsessed culture that opens April 2 at New York's Lyceum Theatre, marking the prolific playwright's Broadway debut. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find a boring scene in LaBute's controversial oeuvre, celebrated for its amoral characters: heartbreakers, baby killers, gay bashers, and other boys behaving badly. But while beauty may be skin-deep, such ugliness in mankind is quite the opposite, and LaBute delights in examining our darkest impulses. Because his repugnant male characters are so often unapologetically disrespectful toward women and gays, some critics label LaBute a misogynist and a homophobe, accusations the writer has repeatedly disavowed. Others argue that LaBute's most extreme examples of misogyny and homophobia may stem from his characters' repressed homosexuality, an interpretation he hasn't directly addressed. So by putting their diabolical deeds up for debate, it's time to challenge the bearded, bulky, and bespectacled LaBute to pull his most fiendish characters out of their closets — even if it means claiming monsters as our own.
A year before he enjoyed mainstream Hollywood success for directing Nurse Betty, LaBute tackled homophobia head-on in 1999's Bash: Latter-Day Plays, informed by his time at Brigham Young University, the Mormon-run Utah institution where LaBute accepted a "non-Mormon scholarship" and then later joined the Mormon Church himself. LaBute's disfellowship — after the LDS church's disapproval of Bash, in which Mormons confess to committing horrific acts — ultimately led to his formal separation from the church in 2004. In the drama, which was subsequently filmed for Showtime, a college-aged man named John graphically recounts beating a middle-aged gay man in a public restroom after seeing him kiss another man in Central Park. LaBute chose to make this victim gay in response to an outbreak of gay bashings in the news. "By this time I'd also gotten a sense of the intolerance not just by Mormons but by other religious groups," says LaBute, now 46, from his Chicago home. "It made the most sense that a gay couple would strike a nerve in this boy."
Though actor Paul Rudd, who portrayed the gay basher off-Broadway, revealed during a 2007 interview with The Advocate that he had always suspected John to be a deeply closeted homosexual, LaBute firmly maintains that the character's sexuality isn't so clear-cut. "I certainly left the material there for one to create that," he says, distancing himself from the direction of that production, which was helmed by out director Joe Mantello. "But the viewer could find any number of solutions as to why he would be overcome with that rage. It could just be someone who has been told, 'We hate those people because they're different.'" Despite persistent knocking, LaBute seems intent on keeping John's closet door ambiguously ajar.
When his 1997 film In the Company of Men premiered, LaBute anticipated the argument that the misogynistic aggression shown by Chad, a businessman played by Aaron Eckhart, might be a symptom of his secret homosexuality. "That's definitely an interpretation one could make," says LaBute, "because there's a fairly overt scene that doesn't really explain itself: When he makes the young black intern take off his pants and just stares at him, there's a look on his face you can't really read. You're like, Why did you do that? To humiliate this guy because he's black and younger than you? Was it just a game, or did you really want to see him naked?"
A question answered with more questions is classic LaBute. But it proves more difficult for him to talk his way out of similar suspicions about Jason Patric's character, Cary, in the sexually frank 1998 film Your Friends & Neighbors. "You just might have more support for that argument," LaBute acknowledges with a hearty laugh, referring to the memorable steam room scene in which Cary describes his rape of a high school classmate named Timmy as the "best fuck" of his life. "Well, Cary says that this was 'making love,' but I'd be very curious to hear what Timmy had to say about things."
LaBute revisited male-on-male sexual violation in his 2007 play In a Dark Dark House, which concluded its London run in January following stagings in New York and Chicago. It's a twisty tale of adult brothers examining their history of physical and sexual abuse by both their father and a family friend. This time, however, the writer is quicker to immunize his drama from gay interpretations. "Pedophiles and homosexuals are often lumped together, and wrongly so," says LaBute, who revealed in the play's program notes that he had been abused as a child himself. "I rarely ever pulled from my own life until this. The story was fictional, but I was able to examine it clearly because of my past history."
LaBute, who recently signed on to direct two more films for Screen Gems following the success of last year's Lakeview Terrace, promises that he also has a proper gay-themed play "on the burner," inspired by his experience as a BYU undergrad studying film and theater. "A lot of the guys in my department followed the traditional Brigham Young line — they went off on their mission, got married, had kids — only to find out later that life was calling them to a completely different place. Often, they left their situations and had gay relationships. I find that interesting: When they suddenly find themselves back at zero, what do they do now?" As further proof of his twisted sense of humor, LaBute imagines it as a "coming-of-age romantic comedy."
LaBute likens the treatment of homosexuality at BYU to the Defense Department's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. "It was probably no better and no worse than in the American military, because there's that weird dichotomy of it not being a problem as long as you don't practice," he explains with an air of both bemusement and defensiveness. "But even when I was under scrutiny for Bash, I never felt anything but the church treating me in a loving manner. I never felt the church to be a place where people were shut out and the cold winds swept you away."
It wasn't until the 2004 off-Broadway premiere of Fat Pig, in which a good-looking man dates an overweight woman despite his friends' efforts to sabotage the relationship, that LaBute says he became acutely aware of his gay audience. "What looked to be a story about this woman was really the story of a man trying to keep two worlds going: his private world and his public world," he explains. "We began to hear from audience members, saying, 'This is my story,' and I'd be looking at this 39-year-old, rail-thin guy, and I'm thinking, What do you mean this is your story? But it suddenly clicked: Anybody who has ever had to hide part of their life can see themselves in there."
He may lack the gay influences from which to draw more openly gay characters, hut LaBute says it's this "taboo of the unknown" that turns gay themes — ambiguous or concrete — into provocative storytelling. "There are still great areas of this country where the moral mind-set has not shifted, so the gay experience is still low on the radar for many people," reasons LaBute, who points to his own "slow awakening" while growing up in Spokane, Wash. "My first contact with homosexuality was through dramatic literature; it certainly wasn't from discussion or my own surroundings. No one thought twice about Elton John's sexual preference. It probably made a difference to some when they found out, but to me? Not at all. 'Your Song' sounds exactly the same now as it did then."
The Advocate, April 2009 issue.