He's Not Bad, He Just Writes That Way: On the Eve of His Broadway Debut, Playwright and Screenwriter Neil LaBute Takes on His Critics' Charges That He's a Misogynist, a Homophobe, and an Embodiment of the Worst Aspects of Male Behavior
Voss, Brandon, The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
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. …