The last time Neil LaBute showed up for a reading at Profiles Theatre, he gifted a woman in the audience with a first draft—an unpublished scene from a work in progress—handing over the pages simply because she asked for them. This month, the playwright, 48, who lives part-time in the west suburbs, returns to Profiles for the post-Broadway premiere of his Tony-nominated drama Reasons to Be Pretty. We chatted with LaBute about beauty, Broadway, and why Profiles is so singularly suited to staging plays about men behaving badly.
Reasons to Be Pretty is the last part in a trilogy (Fat Pig, The Shape of Things) that deals pretty brutally with weight and body image. Why do you keep telling stories about people who are perceived as fat and ugly?
I’ve been fascinated with this idea of the physical self for years: how we’re all so judgmental about the way people look, how we try to change the way we look for other people. I started researching Reasons to Be Pretty years ago. I was at Lollapalooza, waiting for Wilco to start. I began asking women around me how they’d react if they heard their boyfriend say, “Yeah, I totally love her, but her face is average.” What would that do to the relationship?
And women actually answered this question?
Well, I explained I was researching a play. Also, my son was with me, so I wasn’t just this creepy single guy asking personal questions.
Reasons to Be Pretty opens with one of the most vicious attack-dog monologues I’ve ever read: the reaction of a woman after her boyfriend says her face is “regular.” Did that come from Lollapalooza?
Sort of. The reactions I got fell heavily on gender lines. For the woman, it didn’t matter if the guy really loved her. What he thought—what he said—about her looks was a dealbreaker. The guys I talked with didn’t really care.
Have you changed the script since Broadway?
On Broadway, economic worries bleed onto the artistic ones. I had to make artistic concessions to cater to the economics of the Broadway audience. Small semantic ones, but still concessions. Profiles might keep the changes, but if they do, that won’t be an economic decision. It’ll be an artistic one.
Will you be involved in the upcoming production?
I’ll make myself available. I can’t possibly offer that to everybody who does my work, but I offer it to Profiles. I love when a place just devours my characters like they do. There’s such a devotion to the material. They rehearse for months, not weeks. And I’ll write something just for them, something new, to bring to the reading. [LaBute appears at the theatre for a reading on January 8th.]
Will you give it away?
I don’t know. I didn’t plan that last time. It just kind of happened.
What’s your reaction to the not-uncommon criticism that your work is misogynistic—that you create these unattractive female characters who are abused by men?
That doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s usually the men who refuse to grow up and who act like jerks in my plays.
GO Profiles Theatre (4147 N. Broadway) hosts An Evening with Neil LaBute on Saturday, January 8th. Tickets are $60. The Midwest premiere of Reasons to Be Pretty is Friday, January 21st. For more information, go to profilestheatre.org.
Photograph: Francois Durand/Getty Images