March 15, 2007
Neil LaBute bears a heavy load
Whether it's business or religion, the 'Fat Pig' playwright tells it like it is
(Page 2 - Previous Page)LaBute converted to Mormonism in the 1980s, before he married Lisa Gore, a family therapist who was deeply involved in the faith and eventually held a church office.
"I was never the most devout or straightforward of the flock," he says. "I like to say 'I was practicing, although I needed more practice.'"
"But I don't think I would have stayed had I not gotten something out of the [religion]," he adds. "I certainly had questions about the church, but I didn't find its structure or history to be problematic." LaBute cites the Mormon belief that theological history was engraved on golden plates and buried in ancient times: "While that might sound outlandish to members of other religions, I'm like, 'Yeah, what about an ark of the covenant? A Garden of Eden?' The Mormon stories are no more outlandish."
When LaBute returned to Brigham Young to earn his doctorate in the early 1990s, he squabbled with officials who found his work brilliant but scandalous.
Administrators locked him out of the theater to prevent the staging of "Lepers" (later the play and the film "Your Friends and Neighbors"). LaBute was allowed into the building only to give an exam in a class he was teaching -- and then he cheekily cut the test short in order to show his play.
At Brigham Young, he also directed a student production of David Mamet's "Sexual Perversity in Chicago," after removing the expletives to meet university standards.
"Mamet would've been horrified," he says. "But I tried to maintain the sense of the play without the overt language. Even to advertise it I had to create a subversive kind of poster; it was so lavishly decorated that you couldn't read the title."
The tension between LaBute's work and his faith also played out in his personal life. In the late 1990s, his wife phoned him on the first day of his "Neighbors" shoot, to beg him to cancel the production. LaBute has been reported to have said that his work created great stress in his marriage, but he was not about to let anyone dictate what he should write. (LaBute said he is still married, but declined to say anything further.)
Mormon officials mostly left him alone until his 1999 trio of playlets, "bash" (later a 2001 Showtime production), depicted clearly Mormon characters hurting babies and homosexuals. LaBute was summoned before a 15-person tribunal and interrogated.
"It was upsetting because I felt misunderstood and misread," he says. "I understand that Mormons have a defined sense of what art should be and the kind of art that Mormons should be making. It should be uplifting, even if there is a darkness to it. I agreed that one can write dark things that still show a moral side, and I said that's what I think I do."
LaBute said he had intended "bash" to show how even devout people can commit atrocities; he made the characters Mormon "because I was too lazy to research other religions." He agreed to refrain from writing about Mormons ever again.
Nevertheless, LaBute was disfellowshipped, which he describes as "a kind of limbo where you can work back into the good standing of the church or toward excommunication. In my case, the issue raised enough questions and made me angry enough that I did nothing about it for a while."
The author decided to withdraw his church membership around 2005, when he was informed that his excommunication was imminent. "It was like quitting before you get fired," he says. "But I realized that it was actually better for my kids to have a father who wasn't a member of the church than what they considered a bad member."
The decision was also best for LaBute: "When I finally focused on the fact that I was making R-rated movies, and Mormons aren't supposed to attend them, I had to say 'I'm hustling here, I have to choose one or the other,'" he recalls. "You go along, and you hope nobody busts you on it, but then you bust yourself. It wasn't really a brave choice, it was just a choice, and in the end it was relatively selfish -- I was just doing what I wanted to do." The conflict between one's personal and private life is also a central theme in "Fat Pig." In the play, the fictional Tom may give up the love of his life because he can't stand the heckling from his co-workers.
"The play explores how we struggle with our convictions and whether we can follow our heart rather than our fears," director Bonney says. "It makes us question how we behave in groups and the way we judge people." "Fat Pig" began percolating as LaBute lost 60 pounds on a low-carb, heavy-workout regimen several years ago.
"I wasn't feeling so hot. I looked like shit. I was tired of wearing the same pants," he writes in the introduction to the play. He browbeat himself with the mantra, "Stop eating so damn much, you fat bastard!" As his weight dropped, he wrote, he "discovered the preening fool who was living just beneath the surface of my usual self." LaBute surreptitiously patted his behind to see if it had grown firmer.
"I also noticed that I was writing less and less," he says.
Eventually, the author, a self-proclaimed stress eater, returned to his Pringles and the aforementioned pants.
LaBute says he's particularly curious about how Angelenos will respond to "Pig" because "this city is very much about beautiful people trying to look more beautiful."
"But the play is primarily a study of human weakness," he insists.