THE SHAPE OF THINGS by Neil LaBute, directed by Jim Guedo, with Amy Redford, Allan Hawco, Amy Price-Francis and Jacob Barker. Presented by CanStage in association with Spoke Productions at the Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley). Previews September 23-25, opens September 26 for a limited run, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday 1:30 pm, Saturday 2 pm. $20-$49, limited pwyc Monday rush and half-price same day rush. 416-368-3110. Rating: NNNNN
new york city -- let me explain the neil LaBute gasp. It's the reaction -- "Whoa!" or "No way!" -- to seeing a particularly shocking scene.
If you've seen the writer/director's first two films, you've probably done it yourself.
Maybe you gasped at seeing Aaron Eckhart mimic his secretary's deafness in the writer/director's first film, In The Company Of Men.
Or maybe it was during Your Friends And Neighbors, when Jason Patric berates a woman cowering in his bathroom because she got her period and stained his 300-thread-count bedsheets.
Remember those fond cinematic moments? Thought so. Well, here's another LaBrutal moment to add to the memory bank.
It's two days before September 11, 2002, at an earnest New York City gala of original playlets and songs written in response to last year's events. Look, there's Bebe Neuwirth! Isn't she great? Wow, Jason Patric's gained weight, hasn't he? Jill Clayburgh and Marsha Mason are troopers, huh? You know, Isabella Rossellini really does glow.
In between sentimental ditties and lengthy, well-meant scenarios about folks who didn't grasp the significance of life before the planes hit, and the occasional piece of good theatre, LaBute's piece Land Of The Dead premieres.
It stars Sex And The City's prissy Charlotte, Kristin Davis, and The Object Of My Affection's cutie-pie lead, Paul Rudd. They're an attractive young couple. She's about to have an abortion, against her will.
In two overlapping monologues, we learn, among other things, that if he were a woman he'd just "find the right attachment on the dustbuster" and do the job himself, and that she eventually pays for the abortion with her Diner's Club card.
Cue the LaBute gasp.
"We expect a certain level of decorum in society," says LaBute, explaining the crowd's reaction over breakfast the next morning. "We may be privately titillated by certain things, or run something back on the VCR on our own or with a certain group of friends, but in our more polite grouped events, we want to believe in, or want the appearance of, respectability.
"I was praying for an event like this," adds the writer, whose play The Shape Of Things begins previews this week.
"Something that opens with a "We will go on' feeling in a reflective and moving way. There was so much talk about children born after 9/11, the mothers left behind and the 2,000 children who lost parents. I was looking for something that bounced off that in another direction."
LaBute's downing pancakes in the restaurant of his trendy SoHo boutique hotel. Although physically he's probably unchanged, he's come a long way since his days as a shaggy theatre grad student living a few blocks away at NYU. And even further from his working-class background in Spokane, Washington, with his film-loving mom and trucker father, a tough man who partly inspired LaBute's rough male characters.
One of the few writer/directors to work both in film and theatre (see sidebar), LaBute's at a turning point in his career. A couple of years ago, he parted from the angry-young-man school of filmmaking by directing -- not writing -- Nurse Betty, then followed that up with last month's unlikely vehicle, the film version of A.S. Byatt's novel Possession.
As if to get back to basics -- his first two films were based on plays he'd written -- he's immersed himself in theatre lately.
Last year, The Shape Of Things was better received in London than in New York, possibly because it premiered off-Broadway around 10/11, when people weren't feeling like attending plays. LaBute's new play, The Mercy Seat, inspired by September 11 and starring Sigourney Weaver, opens on Broadway this November.
"Theatre concentrates on the elements I like best -- the actors and the script," says LaBute. "I have a healthy and growing respect for the other elements of film. In Nurse Betty and Possession you can see my visual vocabulary growing. But I don't stay up at night thinking about cranes.
"Don't get me wrong. I love seeing Scorsese choreograph a steadycam, or Fincher going through a keyhole in a door. But those things don't move me in the same way as two people talking in a really good scene."
Set in a liberal arts college in the American Midwest, The Shape Of Things contains plenty of people talking in really good scenes.
Its central character is Evelyn (played by Robert Redford's offspring, Amy Redford), an ambitious art student who, like a modern-day Henry Higgins, sets about trying to change Adam (Allan Hawco) from an overweight, bespectacled nebbish into a more attractive package. But as he gets prettier, he becomes more morally ambiguous.
"Adam's partly the architect of his own downfall," says LaBute. "So, in a strange way, was Christine in In The Company Of Men. I made very sure that, while I think she was victimized and didn't deserve what she got, in some ways she was complicit."
Ideas of good and bad swirl through LaBute's works. His characters either lie through their teeth or reveal such brutal truths you wish they'd lie.
"If my portrait were painted, it'd be in shades of grey," he says. "People aren't necessarily good or bad. We all lie. I lie on a daily basis. Why? Because it might make things a fraction of a percent easier than telling the whole truth. We all make good, bad or questionable choices."
Right now, LaBute's smarting from one of his recent choices. After his play Bash was produced on Broadway, he was de-fellowshipped from the Mormon Church. The play includes Mormons who beat a gay man to death in Central Park. His de-fellowship means he can still attend church but he's not allowed to take the sacrament.
"The Mormon Church believes art should be used to enlighten and be positive, and I completely understand their stand on me. It was not an easy decision for them to make," says LaBute, without regret or irony. "It's their way of telling me if this continues I can't remain a member of the Church.
"The thing is, I never imagined I was going to write a play about Mormons in the first place," he says. "My point was, being a member of the Church does not protect you from making bad choices. It doesn't mean you're impervious to moral ambiguity.
"I've always believed that great good can come from showing bad," he says, a statement that sums up his art, and all those gasps. "That's where the Church and I split, and it'll continue to test me as long as I'm a member."