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Photo: Chris Floyd

So Neil Labute has a new play opening—another new play—his third in less than three years, making him the reigning prince of Off Broadway. This one is called Fat Pig, a gleefully harsh title, the barb of a wicked third-grader converted into high art. You read those two toothy words and you wince, then grin, then wince at yourself for grinning. That’s LaBute: funny in a mean way, or mean in a funny way, depending on your point of view. You emerge from his plays either praising him for the metaphoric slap in the face or simply wishing you knew where he lived, so you can hunt down the bastard and deliver a literal slap of your own.

The guy is doing something right, in short. To be a fan of LaBute’s is also to be his foe, to question and curse him. His cruel wit and chronicles of immoral moralizers have made him, arguably, the most legitimately provocative and polarizing playwright at work today. “I’m looking to cause trouble on the stage,” he says, chuckling a little ruefully, during a recent chat. In conversation he is glib, self-effacing, genuinely kind, and admittedly long-winded, schizophrenically linking seemingly disparate points, as if in constant reevaluation of his own internal thesis. “I mean,” he goes on, “isn’t that the job description? To turn heads? To deliver something new? It’s not as if I want to be provocative for the sake of provoking. I at least try to make something that’s going to last beyond the momentary shock. I’m starting to ramble, aren’t I? Am I making sense?” In the past five years, he’s written and staged five plays—George C. Wolfe will be directing a sixth, This Is How It Goes, at the Public next year—and recently published a collection of short stories, Seconds of Pleasure.

It was 1997 when LaBute hit the culture with the first in a series of perverse dramas of cruelty: In the Company of Men, the story of two office drones who seduce and destroy a beautiful, sincere deaf woman. LaBute was deemed a repellent misogynist and a visionary cynic; critics sharpened their hatchets, famous actors asked him to lunch. The irony of his Mormonism and devoted family life was duly noted. Over the next several years, he created the acid Your Friends and Neighbors and The Shape of Things (which, like In the Company of Men, was an adaptation of a LaBute play about an earnest dupe pranked by a manipulative lover—this time with the genders switched). But the real shocker was The Mercy Seat, which debuted a year after September 11, jolting New Yorkers with the story of a spineless man who would have died in the Twin Towers had he not skipped work for a quickie blow job from his mistress-boss. The timing was enough to cause jaded jaws to drop.

LaBute asserts that critics don’t bother him, though it’s a tough claim to take at face value. For one, he spends twenty minutes asserting this. Also, he’s become infamous in theater circles for sending notes to major critics—sometimes critiques of their critiques, sometimes thank-yous for their observations. (“I swear I’m just mucking it up,” he states vaguely.) The most persistent charge aimed at LaBute is that his protagonists are not so much real humans in a human world as vessels of distilled hate. “Okay, it’s true that I’ve been a bit of a cold fish,” LaBute concedes matter-of-factly. “I’m someone who has said, ‘Oh, here’s a person in pain. Let’s bring the microscope down closer.’ ” In the films Nurse Betty and Possession (both adapted from others’ writing), he’s attempted to depart from this bleak worldview, though the results were uninspired: the misanthrope clunking in the mainstream. It was The Mercy Seat that marked a truly subtle shift in tone for LaBute, the cursory introduction of something new: genuine emotion in the form of human weakness.

To be a fan of LaBute’s is also to be his foe, to question and curse him. His cruel wit and chronicles of immoral moralizers have made him arguably, the most legitimately provocative and polarizing playwright at work today

Which brings us to Fat Pig. “I guess in the past my interest has really been in the opposite of weakness, in power or cruelty or maliciousness,” explains LaBute, who isn’t directing this time out. He decided to work on writing, pursue other projects, and decompress after his first truly bitter experience in film: He adapted Amanda Filipacchi’s novel Vapor, only to have it axed by Warner Bros. at the eleventh hour. “Yeah, it’s a strange business, but aren’t all businesses? Anyway, what was I saying? Oh, Fat Pig. Right. In this one, people hurt each other, yes, but I think sometimes they do so out of kindness and honesty. Wait a second—which draft did you read? Because I’ve made some changes that I think really flesh that out … ”

Another in a series of diabolically simple plots, Fat Pig is bound to resonate uncomfortably with New Yorkers. A man named Tom hits it off with a woman named Helen, who happens to be a touch large. This doesn’t sit well with Tom’s friends, Carter and Jeannie, two LaBute archetypes: sometimes sage, sometimes stupid, almost always nasty. Fat Pig was inspired in part by LaBute’s own experiment with Atkins—losing 60 pounds in the past year, then gaining most of it back. “Typically, I’m not one to rip from my own life,” he says, but this time he’s done just that. “On one hand, what I was doing was healthy, but on the other, I saw it as a lot of wasted time on the self.” The play’s overt mission is to put our carb-counting, Extreme Makeover nation in the crosshairs. How much has our relentless pursuit of beauty turned us into an uglier species? Does love need society’s blessing to be complete?

Despite the gimmicky title, LaBute hopes that Fat Pig will be understood as more than a satire of modern humanity beating against the Botox current. “That element is just the surface,” he explains. “It’s really a study in weakness, a play about Tom’s journey. Helen is the most centered character onstage. I want to know if Tom can rise above himself, if he can reconcile his public and private selves. Can he be honest? Can he be truthful? It’s an examination of what it means to love, which is really a new place for me.”

A year ago, writing in Slate, LaBute remarked: “I am only interested in my work concluding in a way that is true to the characters and the tale, without concern for the audience.” But he’s got a dedicated audience now, one that’s come to anticipate the LaBute ending: the malicious twist, in which the demonic prevails. It’s an essential part of how an audience must engage with him—you have to wrestle with his incendiary moral perspective or risk being trampled—but coming from someone so prolific, it runs the risk of turning into shtick. LaBute knows this. With Fat Pig, he seems to be shifting slowly from abstract plot tricks to something more nuanced, yet more unsettling: the emotional crisis of a guy unable to accept his plus-size girlfriend—male angst, minus the sadism. “What a setup, I know,” LaBute says, and there’s that sly laugh again. “You’ve got this girl who’s dying to be misused.” It would be a disservice here to spoil the finale, but let’s just say that LaBute goes beyond crude misuse and pulls off a deft little stunt: an ending that’s wholly crushing, but not quite hopeless. “In a weird way, this is my most hopeful ending yet,” he says. And unlike the prickish charmers that are his speciality, he sounds like he means it.

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