These are not the characters of pastel-colored rom-coms, whose humorous tiffs and misunderstandings lead to Happily Ever After. Greg and Steph are the people you see having vicious public fights in, say, mall food courts. In LaBute's hands, these are the people who aren't allowed sweet redemption. Nor do they often deserve it.
"It's bad for actors to judge their characters. It's wrong for writers to apologize. It's much more important to me that they're [his characters] interesting rather than likable," LaBute said. "A lot of what I do is based on what I want to see as an audience member. I'd rather not have that last redemptive moment after two hours of crap. If this person was crap for two hours, they might as well finish off as crap, like most people do. We say ‘Oh, this story is going to end so we've got to find a way to wrap things up.' But life doesn't wrap up like that when we hope it will."
Sentiments such as these have marked LaBute's entire career, like his breakthrough play "In the Company of Men" (a star-making role in the film version for LaBute's college buddy Aaron Eckhart), and throughout his film work as a director, including "Nurse Betty," "Lakeview Terrace" and his remake of the British farce "Death at a Funeral."
LaBute, 49, is cagey about talking about his personal life and quick to say that his plays are in no way autobiographical. He does not give interviews unless they're attached to one of his works. LaBute grew up blue collar with a truck-driver father who abused him, LaBute told the New York Times, though he wouldn't reveal specifics about the abuse. He attended Brigham Young University, where he met Eckhart and where he converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. LaBute was "disfellowshipped" after writing "Bash: Latter-Day Plays," a 1989 work that portrayed Mormons the way LaBute portrays all his characters: as not so nice people.
"reasons" director Maria Mileaf said the harshness of LaBute's work is what draws her to it. "I would have to really feel strongly than feel mediocre about something," she said. "If you're directing ‘Othello,' you have to love him. You can't judge the characters and assume what their story is."
"reasons" is the final entry in LaBute's unofficial trilogy about the importance of physical beauty in society, with "The Shape of Things" and "Fat Pig" preceding. LaBute didn't set out to write these plays as part of a whole, but he believes the three exist in the same world. Greg and Steph could have run into the characters of "The Shape of Things" or "Fat Pig" in a bar. Although the characters from each play probably wouldn't like each other very much. (The theater is hosting a screening of the film version of "The Shape of Things," starring Rachel Weisz and Paul Rudd, on June 11 at 7:30 p.m.)
But "reasons" differs from the previous two entries in specific ways. "The Shape of Things," a Cinderella story that's no fairy tale, takes place in the world of academia. "Fat Pig," about a man who is embarrassed by his overweight girlfriend, is populated by yuppies. "reasons" is set in a blue-collar world that's not often seen onstage. It's one that LaBute knows well from his blue-collar upbringing. "It felt right for this particular show, which was about a world that is not steeped in the world of beauty or fashion magazines and those types of things," LaBute said, "but it's still important to those people."
"reasons" has also been heralded as a coming-of-age play for LaBute. Critics have said he grew up with this play because there are glimmers of hope shining through the plot's tough exterior. LaBute doesn't feel as if he's evolved. It's simply where the story needed to go this time, he said.
But LaBute may be selling himself short. "There's nothing about Neil LaBute that would make me use the word soft, but the departure of this play exposes an ugly dynamic rather than celebrates that dynamic," Mileaf said. "It's more multifaceted."
Or not. "I'm sure I'm going to still be writing about guys who are brats and don't grow up and aren't kind to people," the playwright said.
The "Bard of the Bastards" doesn't write these characters to shock or anger the audience. He simply writes these unlikable, even hateful characters because they feel real to him. "I hear enough of people saying, ‘Are you doing this to shock?' " LaBute said. "There are so many easier ways to do it than to actually sit down and plot out a play." n
Suzanne Roberts Theatre, through June 24, $52-59, 215-985-0420, philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.
Contact Molly Eichel at 215-854-5909 or email@example.com, or follow on Twitter @mollyeichel. Read her blog posts at philly.com/entertainment.