LaBute describes "The Possible" as "the story of a woman who breaks up a relationship so that she can hopefully end up with one of the people from that relationship. Is that love? I don't know, but it's worth investigating, at least for ten pages or so."

Couched in those terms, love becomes a much more common element of LaBute's work. It lurks in the shadows of the often-horrible things his characters do to each one other, overlooked or ignored because of the overt violence that shocks and captivates. Our ravenous desire for the love of another human being is the defining characteristic of the needy Adam in The Shape of Things, who allows his new girlfriend to remake him emotionally, intellectually and physically. It's there in the dark undertow of Greg and Kent's friendship in 2008's reasons to be pretty, as two men destroy their own deep relationship in pursuit of emotional maturity (or something like it).

In LaBute's plays love is as potent a weapon as language, as sharp as regret and as hard to nail down as water. His characters ache for it, and from it.

Labute photo: Pix Planete/Globe Photos/ZUMAPRESS.com via newscom.com

Location Info

Map

Gaslight Theater

358 N. Boyle Ave.
St. Louis, MO 63108

Category: Performing Arts Venues

Region: St. Louis - Central West End

Details

LaBute New Theater Festival
July 5-28 at the Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle Avenue.
Evening performances 8 p.m. Thu.-Sat.; matinees 3 p.m. Sun.
Tickets are $30 ($25 for students and seniors; $50 for opening weekend).
Call 314-458-2978 or visit www.stlas.org.

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reasons to be pretty recently spawned a sequel, Reasons to Be Happy, currently playing in New York with St. Louis native Jenna Fischer (The Office) in a starring role. The play revisits the same quartet of characters several years later, older but still struggling with love and relationships and each other. It has been very well reviewed in most quarters, but even when the critics praise his work, as the New York Times' Ben Brantley did, they tend to label LaBute a misanthrope.

For an alleged misanthrope, LaBute takes those sorts of charges in stride. "I think he probably meant on the page," the playwright allows. "And he's right in that I can be rough on my characters and my audiences because I want to keep pushing, to see what's out there and where we can still go with drama. I'm a pretty quiet person in life, but I am free and brave on the page. I don't think of myself as a misanthrope, because I do like and have great interest in my characters, but that doesn't mean I write them as lovely and wonderful people. They are as complicated as I am or the people around me who have influenced my writing."

It's that willingness to handle his characters — and his audience — with such callous compassion that distinguishes LaBute. Those final moments before the curtain rises on a LaBute play are endless, but they never last long enough. Soon enough you'll be dropped into a whirling torrent of invective and hateful venality, and it's all you can do to remain seated. Why not bolt before the first shot is fired?

Because when the lights come back up, you feel exhilarated. It's the damnedest thing, but once it's over you appreciate everything he has done to you because of what he has given you. All the pushing and the stretching and mutilating of lives is worth it in the end — and don't think for a second that LaBute doesn't know what he's putting you through, or that he doesn't care.

"It's a bit of a trick — I have to now find new ways to give audiences a jolt or to stir things up — but I enjoy that game," he confesses. "It's part of the job of being a writer: to surprise and confound and upend expectations (both in small and large ways). People don't want the same old thing, and they want to be taken on a journey, and that's what I try to do. But I also don't want to be trapped into doing that every time out, either. If I can make someone feel like it was worth it to spend their money and their time on one of my films or plays or books, then I've fulfilled my side of the bargain."

So all that pain and fear, all the bad vibes and awkward moments: Those are his gift to us. It's a sign of his respect for the audience that LaBute wants us to get our money's worth, even though you sometimes weaken halfway through digesting one of those barbed gifts and consider paying someone to make it stop.

As for his own preferences in entertainment and how they jibe with those of the critics, LaBute is characteristically forthcoming. "I like going to the theater or to the movies, so I'm already a game audience," he says. "I want people to succeed and to take me away for a few hours — I often feel that critics are frustrated by wanting to be creative and therefore just spend a lot of their time tearing down other work, and that doesn't help anyone. The best ones are instructive and a useful part of the process, but too often they feel like the unwanted aunt or uncle at Thanksgiving who didn't bring anything but has something bad to say about every dish on the table."

The aforementioned Reasons to Be Happy offers a case study in what LaBute deems bad criticism. Not long after our interview with the playwright, David Cote closed a negative and often insulting review of the play in Time Out New York with a "Wish for the future: Reasons to Be Silent." The jab elicited a response from a commenter who quoted George Steiner ("a critic casts a eunuch's shadow") and signed off with a jaunty, "Keep enjoying the free tickets while they last."

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