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Exclusive: Neil LaBute, Waiting for the Guys to Grow Up

When Neil LaBute calls himself Mr. Sunshine, it makes you giggle. But when you stop to think, there’s something bright, shiny, and ultimately life affirming about the joy he takes in pushing people’s buttons — even when he’s lacing a 9/11 play with abortion or peppering a piece for a voter registration celebration with hate speech. Especially when.

He’s the kind of writer who seeks to challenge, rather than entertain the masses, but watching him lumber (his word choice) around the stage, cutting jokes while gently chiding the audience at the *92YTribeca last Wednesday night, he managed to do both seamlessly. Almost three hours passed, and we didn’t even notice that we needed to pee. Behold: the magic of theater.

After the jump Flavorwire’s Hanny Hindi talks to LaBute about the upcoming Broadway production of his play reasons to be pretty, the tendency for critics to confuse him with his evil characters, and his recent fascination with body image/the way we look at people.

Flavorwire: Have you been surprised by the reviews of reasons to be pretty? All the talk about you “going soft”?

Neil LaBute: [laughter] Soft. Growing-up. Delirious ― various terms. I’m surprised more by their sense that one piece makes them think that I’m going a certain way. Rather than… that’s the way it ends and that it’s that play rather than it says something about me.

FW: The other thing they seem to suggest ― as a lot of reviews of your work do ― is that you identify directly with the nastier characters in your work: the Chads and Carters. They act surprised that you’re a softy, even when you come straight out and say that Paul Rudd is your dramatic doppelganger.

NL: I don’t know if they think I sympathize. I think they imagine that if I’m able to create this, if I’m able to go to that place and imagine that dialogue, those scenarios, then it must be somewhere within me, rather than, “you have to be able to imagine the worst and the best people, because that’s the job.” I’m really a fiction writer. I write characters that are interesting, but they’re firmly rooted in the fictitious.

FW: You did say that Greg [the protagonist of reasons to be pretty] was a different sort of character. An “adult” rather than a “man who’s a boy at heart” like many of your other characters. Can you say more about that?

NL: I think he progresses to a place of adulthood: you begin to think about other people; you begin to make choices that are based on other people’s needs rather than your own. I think part of his journey is to a place where he cares more about somebody else and that person’s life than his own.

FW: You have said that the original ending of the play was different, and that it changed over the course of working with audiences and showing it to test audiences. Was that growth toward adulthood in the original version of the ending?

NL: I did have it, but it was probably a little more wistful. It was a little more bittersweet. While there’s still some of that, I think I nudged it toward a more completely, well, not “satisfying” ― rather than bittersweet it became sweet.

FW: Your female characters have been adults for a while.

NL: Yeah, so I was waiting for the guys to grow up! Even the character in fat pig: he comes upon some very hard truths about himself, to realize that he’s not ready to buck the system and go against his friends and he’s a more weak person. I don’t hold him accountable for that; I don’t think of him as a bad person. I don’t think of the guy who was manipulated in The Shape of Things as someone who is bad ― he was victimized by somebody. His feelings were based on a lie, so, those are guys who are not a “bad guy” But, they’re not necessarily good guys. They’re just people. I write complex people. There are some who are almost sociopathic, like [Chad] in In the Company of Men, and people then sort of base everything against that character and say, “Is this as bad as that?” or “Is this better?”. It’s hard to shake that first thing that people recognize you for.

FW: You’ve also said this was a trilogy, though not one you deliberately set out to write. But there does seem to be a sort of progression from Evelyn in The Shape of Things who does seem nearly sociopathic, to XXX in fat pig who just isn’t strong enough to do something that you imply would take a lot of strength, and then you get to Greg in reasons to be pretty who does make that leap and become an adult ―

NL: — but he makes it begrudgingly as well. He very easily could have gone the other way, so it’s like a portrait of man learning to walk upright. It’s a slow move toward modern man.

FW: Was that move something you thought you’d do when you sat down to write The Shape of Things or did it develop out of working on the plays?

NL: Those first two were written without a real sense of their being a trilogy. But the third time I was thinking about a play that dealt with with body image, the way we look at people, I suddenly realized that I was kind of harping on that theme and that there must be something to it. So that made me look at the structure and the shape of the first few pieces, and I saw that they were really similar, and I’m going to use that same shape for three of these, and it will in effect be a trilogy. That sort of came out of my realization that I was continuing to be fascinated by that subject.

reasons to be pretty begins previews on March 13; click here to purchase tickets.

* Editor’s note: If you haven’t been to the 92YTribeca, it rocks; the space is incredibly intimate and they serve a $6 (!) Prosecco that’s really delicious.