The Real Neil

Photo by Ivan KynclMao had it wrong. Power doesn't come from the barrel of a gun, but from between the legs, a truth at the center of Neil LaBute's highly engaging play, The Shape of Things, which makes its West Coast premiere Saturday at the Laguna Beach Playhouse. LaBute is a rapidly emerging screenwriter and film director. He wrote and directed Your Friends N Neighbors, Nurse Betty, and In the Company of Men, which won the New York Film Critics Circle Award. While his films aren't $100 million blockbusters, LaBute has earned a reputation as a gritty, emotionally honest filmmaker. “It's important to consider how radicalLaBute's films are—and why they've earned the respect of people who haven't especially likedthem,” a Dallas Observercritic wrote in 1998. “LaBute isn't just a trouble-making prankster; he's a director who's pushing the envelope in an area where American films are particularly weak: in their depiction of relationships between men and women.”

But he was a playwright first, and he continues to write plays, the biggest of which was Bash: Latterday Plays, which earned a lot of press for its less-than-stellar portraits of apparently good Mormons gone very, very bad.

The Shape of Thingsis similar to Bashin one respect: what you see at first is not what you get in the end. For a play that winds up asking probing questions about modern relationships and art, The Shape of Things begins simply, following the kind-of-cutesy path of two college couples. There's Philip and Jenny, a young engaged couple who seem quite middle-of-the-road. Then there's Adam (there's no coincidence in that name) and Evelyn. Adam is a geek who works at the local museum. He loves Kafka, so of course he's painfully insecure—about himself, his body, just about everything. Friends complain of the blood they spot on his phone, a manifestation of his nail-biting habit. Enter Evelyn. She's a beautiful avant-garde artist with opinions aplenty, a great ass and a cruel streak that is terrifying to behold. Of course, we don't see that mean streak early—at least not in LaBute's script. It unfolds gradually, vicious stroke by vicious stroke, until, by play's end, we know just what kind of art this sculptor has been working on the whole time.

But there's a lot more going on beneath the surface; we'll reserve final judgment on this as theater after we see it. But the script for The Shape of Thingscertainly feels like the real deal. It's likely to be the kind of unsentimental, provocative play that will have you thinking long after the curtain drops.

And because this is a preview, not a review, we figured it was appropriate to ask the playwright about his play, the theater, himself and—because he attended Brigham Young University—whether Mormons are the devil's children.

OC Weekly: You said once that you seek out plays that challenge an audience's sensibilities. What sensibilities are you challenging in The Shape of Things?Neil LaBute: I think there are some simple ones, like the way we love people, the way we treat people whom we love. How we can start going out with someone and then begin to claim ownership and start changing that person for our own desires rather than adapting ourselves to live with them. It also talks about art and the general subjectivity of art—how two people can look at the same thing and see something different and both be right. And what it costs on a human scale to create art. [Evelyn] is working on her graduate degree and creating art that is controversial, and the play comes to a head in a conversation about the [moral] cost of her piece and whether an artist should pay for what they've done if they hurt people. Should they be responsible for the feelings their art produces, and should they care about the effect it may cause? And should an artist care about the effect of their art?

Not to the point where it stops them from doing it. People should be aware of what they do, but in the creation of art, it's all fair. But that doesn't mean you can fall into the trap of saying it's art so don't criticize it.

You're shooting the film version ofThe Shape of Things. That's getting as much press as the actual theater version. Which raises a question: Why should anyone give a rat's ass about theater in a time and place where film reigns triumphant?

Because it matters. It's still the only place where you can go and hear the spoken word as the essential central element. That excites me. I do like films that are talky, but plays have the spoken power of words. You can't find that anywhere else.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

Invisibility, definitely. As writers, we're terrible eavesdroppers by nature, and that would make it much easier. And then, of course, there's the looking-at-girls-in-the-shower part.

Are Mormons evil?

No. They are not inherently evil, but they have the same capacity for evil as everyone else. That's what Bashwas about. Just because you [belong to a religion] doesn't protect you from making mistakes.

The Shape of Things at the Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-ARTS. Opens Sat. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 N 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 N 7 p.m. Through June 30. $24-$45; opening night, $80.

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