Neil & Prey: For a misogynistic misanthrope, playwright Neil LaBute's a pretty nice dude. An RFT exclusive.

Neil & Prey: For a misogynistic misanthrope, playwright Neil LaBute's a pretty nice dude. An <i>RFT</i> exclusive.
Aaron Eckhart

Perhaps now that he's 50, Neil LaBute is too old to be considered the enfant terrible of playwrights. But there's something about LaBute's well-earned reputation as a crafter of cruel men and vindictive women who machine-gun each other with piercing dialogue that makes it impossible to imagine him softening or mellowing as a writer. This is the same man who establishes in the first ten minutes of "Helter Skelter" the domestic quietude of a husband and wife meeting for lunch at a favorite restaurant after a long day of Christmas shopping for their children, only to end it with that visibly pregnant wife grinning savagely with a table knife jammed in her belly, glad to have caused her philandering husband such great pain in a such a public way.

And the true horror of "Helter Skelter" is that in the moment she stabs herself, you're on her side. She's right. Or maybe she's merely better than — no, less odious than — her husband, who is a coward as afraid to commit himself emotionally to his adultery as he is to commit himself emotionally to his wife and children. Which of the couple has done more damage to their family at the end? Which is worse? "Helter Skelter" is gold-standard LaBute. It's a short, sharp terror of a one-act that grabs you, shakes you violently and then releases you to consider what its protagonists' marriage meant and what went wrong. The playwright forces you to invest yourself in his characters and their actions, even when said characters are plainly horrible people.

"Helter Skelter" was the standout piece in Just Desserts, a collection of LaBute one-acts presented by St. Louis Actors' Studio in 2011. LaBute gave the theater company a new piece for that show, thus fostering a working relationship between the playwright and Actors' Studio founder and producing director William Roth. That partnership has now borne the LaBute New Theater Festival, a month-long celebration of the art of playwriting and a proving ground for new work that opens this weekend at the Gaslight Theater with LaBute in attendance.

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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Roth portrayed the callous husband in "Helter Skelter" — a role he played with a slimy, me-first morality that slowly illuminated the emotional disconnect that hamstrung the character. In real life Roth is a gregarious fellow who values the emotional component theater requires and believes that fostering a sense of community and connectedness is required for any successful theater company. His enthusiasm for the value of doing the work is what spawned this new festival, and what drew LaBute to Actors' Studio — and to St. Louis.

"As Neil and I were working on Just Desserts, I floated the idea by him," Roth recounts. "I didn't have it fully figured out, but there are few playwrights working today with Neil's reach. He is so very dedicated to promoting theater that it seemed a natural fit for him to foster playwriting. It was equally important to have a high-school component to get young writers interested in writing plays."

LaBute says the notion was immediately a compelling one. "I enjoyed working with William Roth [on Just Desserts] and appreciated his love of theater and his desire to reach a broader audience with ideas like the collection of shorts we did together and this new festival," LaBute explains in a recent e-mail exchange with Riverfront Times. "I'm an advocate for theater, and I help out when and where I can."

LaBute's involvement was a great help indeed. Roth admits he had no idea what to expect when it came time to solicit submissions. "I sent out the press release with the rules of the festival, requested ten pages, and over the next few months we received over 250 submissions from all over North America," the producer says. "That is the power of Neil's influence with playwrights."

Of course that influence could have shown up in a few submissions as well, as writers aped LaBute's style in hopes of swaying the judges — and one judge in particular. "We had a few of those," Roth admits. "But for the most part, we received plays that covered the spectrum of ideas and dramatic situations. Neil's new short play, 'The Possible,' is leading the way in this festival, and I'm sure that helped keep the imitators at bay." (See sidebar for more information about the winning plays and authors.)

Besides, LaBute wasn't involved in the judging process: "I have read the winning entries and have written a piece for this festival, but I was not involved in the early stages of the selection process due to my own work schedule," he tells RFT. "And in some ways I prefer that — I don't like being a critic as much as I like being an advocate."


"The Possible" was a bit of a departure for LaBute. "It's a love story," he says.

Come again?

"Love, however, is never simple, or at least I'm not interested in the simple versions — I am interested in where love can take us, what we'll do to get it or to keep it or to get rid of it," he ventures. "I'm often trying to stretch the idea of 'love' as far as it can go, to see what it is and how it works."

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