If theater buffs typically fall into two camps—frivolous musical lovers and drama fans who talk about Truth—the latter squadron has its headquarters at the LAByrinth Theater Company. The thirteen-year-old LAB is the hippest theater group in New York, producing the work of playwrights like Stephen Adly Guirgis and John Patrick Shanley. NYU students talk about them as if they were the Yankees. That coolness increased exponentially in the late nineties, when Philip Seymour Hoffman, the character actor who’d been part of the group for several years, jumped into the director’s chair. As LAB members are wont to do, he stuck around. Today, at 37, he’s the company’s co–artistic director, aiming, he says, to accomplish “something that will keep theater alive.”
When we meet during a break in rehearsals of the LAByrinth’s latest production, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, Hoffman is unshaven, nicotine-stained, and endearingly zhlubby. He has a tendency to lean forward confidingly—although it’s hard to tell how much of that is conspiratorial giddiness and how much just bad posture. He’s not glamorous, but he is undeniably cute. And his magnetism comes not least from his talent: He’s an actor’s actor and a shockingly good one, with breakthrough roles in films like Boogie Nights, Almost Famous, and Magnolia. Later this year, he’ll star as Truman Capote in a biographical film that he’s also producing.
One of four kids reared in a suburb of Rochester, Hoffman arrived in Manhattan via NYU’s drama program. After graduation, he worked day jobs until he landed a role in Scent of a Woman. He’s worked nonstop ever since, and is named the actor of his generation with wearying regularity. He lives in the West Village with his girlfriend, an Off Broadway costume designer, and their 2-year-old son. Though Hoffman talks about his career with nonchalance, it’s clear that beneath his shambling exterior is a ton of ambition. John Patrick Shanley describes him as “a saturnine curmudgeon,” adding that he’s “prone to sudden sunny moments, quite intelligent, cautious in his confidences, sweet, brusque, and helplessly enslaved to his own artistic drive. The LAByrinth Theater has been quite important to him, I think, to counter the necessarily gypsy nature of his existence as an actor and director. It is also a place where he can be a boss. And I think he needs that to balance the rest of his working life, where he serves the visions of others.”
Hoffman insists that that last part isn’t true. He absolutely does not like being a boss, he says, and could surrender the title tomorrow. But it’s clear that he’s thriving in his leadership. Hoffman says he tends to leave most of the details to his partner, John Ortiz (who he says is really “the boss, the head honcho”), but together they set priorities (like “multicultural, multiethnic work”) for the 82-member corps. Yet they hardly rule with an iron fist.
“I’m not going up against 80 people!” says Hoffman, laughing. “The company as a whole—if they said no, it’s no. If they said yes, it’s probably going to be yes. There are few instances, almost all economic, where we have to tell them no. John and I are not in a room somewhere going, Our vision must be . . .” But as the company’s public face, Hoffman feels the burden of its status acutely. “I’m always wary of the word hip,” he says. “You focus too much on that, and you have a play that doesn’t work, and everyone gets panicked.”
Under Hoffman’s leadership, the LAB has racked up excellent notices, especially for his collaborations with Guirgis. In 2000, they staged the prison-system drama Jesus Hopped the A Train, a wrenching story about prisoners, guards, lawyers, and their crises of faith. Guirgis’s Our Lady of 121st Street was similarly successful, jumping to the Union Square Theater in 2003 for a nice, long Off Broadway run.
“I’m always wary of the word hip,” Hoffman says. “You focus too much on that, and you have a play that doesn’t work, and everyone gets panicked.”
Also last year, the Public Theater gave its 100-seat space, the Shiva, over to the LAB, which subsequently staged Shanley’s Sailor’s Song (overshadowed by the playwright’s MTC-produced smash Doubt, which opened a week later). For its next production, the LAB will have its brightest spotlight yet: Hoffman is directing Guirgis’s latest work in “the big house,” as the playwright calls the Public’s 200-seat Martinson Hall, starting February 8.
Each of these productions seems, to an outsider, to have been born out of chaos. Guirgis is notoriously late with scripts, producers are kept almost entirely out of the process, and Hoffman is a laissez-faire director. “Because I’m an actor, I know the thing to not do—at least for me—is to get them to act all the time,” he says. “It’s more about building up camaraderie. We show up and whatever’s happening, we talk about that—the tsunami, world events. And because of the nature of the play, whatever you discuss has to do with the play.”
Such a situation can yield weird results, and the pair’s latest collaboration is no exception. The insanely ambitious (and at times baffling) The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is about the living and the dead, sin and redemption, heaven and hell—but mostly purgatory, where Judas is on trial. There’s quite a lot of theology, and a notable number of bestiality jokes. Eric Bogosian plays Satan; Sam Rockwell, Judas. Sigmund Freud and Mother Teresa make appearances. Jesus himself delivers a monologue, part “I’ll be there” speech from The Grapes of Wrath, part actorish ramble: “Right now, I am in Fallujah. Right now, I am in the West Bank. Right now, I am at the grave of Arafat and Rabin and Sadat and Ronald Reagan. I am in the recording studio with Charlie Daniels and the Vienna Boys Choir and Axl Rose . . .” At various moments, Last Days seems to make reference to Albert Brooks’s Defending Your Life, St. Augustine’s Confessions, and the eighties sitcom Night Court.
“One day I just Googled Judas and found out five billion things had been written about him, and for a few months I was paralyzed,” explains Guirgis. He steeped himself in Bible movies, notably Jesus Christ Superstar, Jesus of Montreal, Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, and John Huston’s The Bible (although only for the “hilarious” scene where Huston plays Noah). He’s also been hanging out with a Jesuit priest, Father Jim Martin, about whom Guirgis is rapturous. “If you were a sportswriter, you’d know all about statistics—well, Father Jim has all this stuff at his disposal!” he says. “I’ll talk about a scene I’m writing and he’s like, ‘As Jesus said in Deuteronomy . . .’ ” Of course, Jesus doesn’t appear in Deuteronomy, but in his defense, the playwright hasn’t slept in several days when we speak. Guirgis is once again writing right up to his deadline, nearly into previews.
Hoffman often takes the role of the shrugging straight man to his addled collaborator. “Oh, we’ll be working on it all the way up to opening night, definitely,” he says. “Probably after that.” For the LAB, which will likely move into its own home eventually, what’s key right now is not producing polished product but maintaining what Hoffman calls “the workshop atmosphere,” “the company mentality.” So when Guirgis stays up all night chain-smoking and writing Judas’ monologues, or when producers remain “really more empathetic supporters, not the core,” or when Hoffman spends rehearsals talking with actors about how religion is “the touchy subject, how all the other touchy subjects stem from it,” that’s all part of LAB’s self-imposed rescue mission.
“The company has evolved into a strong root in the theater world,” says Hoffman. When told that LAB-esque companies are popping up downtown, he laughs delightedly. “Yeah! That’s great. I would hope people coming to the city would take a lesson from LAByrinth. I hope companies will come up.” He smiles. “And then somebody else can be the hippest.”