Let Neil LaBute Push Your Buttons

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

vThere's a part of me that hates Neil LaBute. Or at least I want to hate him . . . because come on the things he says about women or really the things he says about men through what they say about women. And, you know, he's so damn manipulative pushing our buttons. How dare he! Childish really. But it's right at that moment, when I've got a full head of steam and I'm really offended - that I realize . . . oh, he got me. Damn it. Neil LaBute got me . . . again.

Let me step back. Neil LaBute's 2008 play "Reasons to Be Pretty" is the current production at the Geffen Playhouse.

For those not familiar with Mr. LaBute's work, he's staked out the particularly fertile ground of sexual politics and the dynamics between men and women: or more precisely the often atrocious things men say about women. He's a shocking and often polarizing playwright who too often gets labeled as a one trick pony.

"Reasons To Be Pretty" is a perfect example.

On the surface, it's the simple story of two couples. The inciting incident is an overheard conversation of two guys talking about women. There's a new hot chick at the packing plant. Kent thinks she's got a pretty face. Greg agrees which leads to an unfortunate comparison to his own girlfriend, Steph. In a moment of stupidity that fuels the play, he calls Steph "ugly." Kent's (not incidentally) hot wife, Carly, overhears the whole thing, reports back to Steph - and, as they say, 'we're off to the races'.

The play onstage becomes a two hour and twenty minute exploration of the burdens of female beauty and masculinity. But that's just the play onstage.

Indulge me for a minute.

One way to break down theater is between the representational and the presentational. To be overly simplistic: fourth wall theater where you just happen to be observing the lives of the characters - representational; and presentational when the characters are speaking directly to you. To be overly complicated - an Irish playwright once told me all of theater can be captured in the differences between the way Catholics and Protestants think about communion. Is it the thing or is it a symbol for the thing?

Now, at first blush, Mr. LaBute would seem to be writing in a representational mode. It looks like 'real life' captured behind the fourth wall. It feels like the characters are saying things to affect one another. But when you dig a little deeper - you realize that Mr. LaBute is writing for his audience.

Now, I hear you asking 'don't all playwrights write for their audiences?' Sadly, no . . . but my sense is a little different.

Mr. LaBute isn't really writing for his characters. Or, put more precisely, he's not writing to get a reaction out of his characters - he's writing to get a reaction out of his audience. The exciting drama isn't happening onstage - it's in the audience. So when one of his sexually charged zingers comes out of a character's mouth - you can feel the audience respond. You can feel the audience silently divide into male and female, offended and amused.

What keeps me from really hating Neil LaBute is the skill and mastery with which he pushes those buttons. As one of his characters tell us - he's writing an allegory. In "Reasons to Be Pretty", the moral is surprisingly simple and noble. It's worth letting Mr. LaBute push your buttons for two hours to get it.

"Reasons To Be Pretty" plays at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood through August 31st.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running Time: two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.

Banner Image Credit: Michael Lamont