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Labute’s Own Mercy Seat

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There’s not a lot of middle-of-the-road when it comes to Neil Labute—not in his work, or in the reaction to his work. He creates lean, hard-nosed, often reverse morality tales fraught with meticulously manipulative or ethically challenging characters, and people either love it or despise it. Almost no one, however, will dismiss it.

Having read pretty much his entire published oeuvre, and even acted in a short film he recently wrote, I can confidently say I fall on the love side of things, but I do understand his critics. For instance, Labute has a penchant for what some call a “twist” ending. And I quote this word, because I’m not sure what it means—“twists” can either be a reveal (i.e. Bruce Willis was dead the whole time), or a kind of re-write (i.e. it was all a dream). Labute likes to work with the former type of “twist,” and as exhilarating as it can be, it does beg the question of why? Why not show us the behind-the-scenes footage of Evelyn’s project in The Shape of Things? Why not reveal sooner the true intentions behind the main characters in Some Girl(s) or In the Company of Men or This is How It Goes? Is it all for the reaction?

Another much-discussed facet of Labute’s work is the misogyny. All of his early plays, in the words of a former acting teacher of mine, always end up with hate. And though my acting teacher was prone to exaggeration, there is no doubt that hate, especially toward women, does happen in said plays. Very few people write male assholes as well as Labute can—or as harshly. He presents his characters’ defects without apology, which can lead to accusations about the author, and leaves audiences, once again, asking why? Why show us, over and over, the worst version of ourselves, if not to exorcise some demon within you? Is it all for the reaction?

Labute’s style of dialogue—raw, biting, direct—is maybe the one part of his writing most people agree is well-crafted. Well, almost. I do recall forcing my ex-roommate, a bright and articulate critic of all things media, to watch the film version of The Shape of Things. And like any time I’ve pushed some hobby or piece of art upon somebody, the reaction was not what I’d hoped. He vehemently disagreed with the film  and when it was done, beckoned me to recite one single line from the movie I thought to be a “good line.” I couldn’t do it. I was sure Labute was a good writer, and I felt strongly about the merit of his language, but I couldn’t come up with one single zinger. Why? Does Labute exist wholly outside the world of aphoristic dialogue? And if so, does that not somewhat contradict the idea that he writes for reaction?

I wish I had all the answers. But to further quote the acting teacher mentioned above, “the only way to do Labute is with a question.” And that I believe. There may be a small middle-of-the-road with him, but that’s probably only because the sides are not so defined. Therefore, I encourage anyone who mildly interested in acting or writing or directing (and has some expendable income) to show up tonight, at 7 PM to the Howard Fine Acting Studio in Hollywood for “An Evening With Neil Labute,” a benefit for the non-profit Vs. Theatre Company (who are producing his Mercy Seat later this year) as well as the charity organization, 9/11 Health Now. Actors suspected to join him include Amanda Peet, Johnny Galecki, Sharon Lawrence, and Bill Pullman. Between them all, you might even get to ask Neil a few questions.

- By Joshua Morrison

For tickets and more information, please call 800-838-3006 or go to www.vstheatre.org.

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