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'The Beauty Plays' Can Get Ugly — In a Good Way

by Jerome Weeks 31 Mar 2010 6:46 AM

Neil LaBute has been called “the bad boy of American theater,” and in staging his “Beauty” trilogy in rep, the Dallas Theater Center highlights the way LaBute moves similar characters around the chessboard of human attraction and cowardice.


DTC - The Shape of Things - Steven Walters and Abbey Siegworth (3) - photo by Brandon Thibodeaux-400Steven Walters and Abby Siegworth in The Shape of Things

The Dallas Theater Center is in the middle of presenting three plays by Neil LaBute, who’s been called the “bad boy of American theater.” KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports on the unsettling side of The Beauty Plays.

  • Pegasus News on The Shape of Things and Fat Pig
  • Dallas Voice‘s review of The Shape of Things and Fat Pig
  • KERA radio story:
  • Expanded online story:

With his stage  plays and such films as In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, Neil LaBute’s work has been called abrasive, creepy and malevolent.

You’d think his characters regularly raped and murdered each other. Actually, in some plays, they do — like The Distance from Here, in which a teenager drowns a baby.

But it’s LaBute’s basic view of the sexes that’s unsettling — and unsparing. Beneath all their quick, comic banter, his men and women fall into two types. Either you’re sharp-tongued and cold-hearted or you’re well-meaning but meek. You’re either a jerk or a sheep. Certainly, LaBrute agrees, none of his characters is particularly admirable.

LaBUTE: “You have to let me work toward admirable. That’s probably not the zip code I’m operating in. ‘Admirable’ is three streets over from where I live [laughs].”

LaBute is busy preparing his new film, Death at a Funeral, to be released in two weeks.  He says this is the first time that his stage trilogy has been presented like this. When the third play, reasons to be pretty, begins previews Friday at the Dallas Theater Center, they’ll be in repertory, alternating on stage.

LaBUTE: “Beyond that, the way in which they’re doing it is really creative – in terms of having just six actors. Each of them are in two of the shows, and I think it was really clever.”

The trilogy is called The Beauty Plays because each dark comedy is about body image, about what is acceptable or appealing. Presenting them like this – with the same company of actors – highlights how LaBute takes similar characters and the same components of sexual attraction and shrewdly re-arranges them like chess pieces. This is the kind of committed, thematic exploration he can do in the theater, LaBute says. It’s certainly not the case with his more hodge-podge career in filmmaking. His movies are often “one-offs,” displays of attempted versatility in different genres (endangered homeowner-thriller in Lakeview Terrace, adapting A. S. Byatt’s novel Possession, re-making the occult thriller The Wicker Man, etc.).

In the first Beauty play, The Shape of Things, a smart young woman does a complete makeover on her new boyfriend, upgrading his looks for her own calculated reasons. In the second, called Fat Pig, it’s the young woman who’s less than conventionally perfect. She’s heavyset, but her new boyfriend finds he must endure the mockery of his office mates, and he may not have the backbone for it. In the third play, reasons to be pretty, a young man has called his girlfriend ‘regular looking,’ and the play opens with her tirade against him.

Because these women are often strident or bitter, LaBute’s plays have also been called sexist. Ironically, these same roles provide great opportunities for female performers to do things onstage they rarely have the chance to.

fattt renderedChristina Vela and Regan Adair in Fat Pig

Christina Vela has the most bipolar pair of roles in the Beauty trilogy. First, she plays the title character in Fat Pig, the unfortunate Helen who finds her new love embarrassed by her. Vela has her ample size on display – and cruelly ridiculed.

VELA: “I’m a bigger girl, I’m curvy. And so making yourself vulnerable like that – it’s difficult. You’re kind of just putting it all out there and saying, ‘OK, I’m going to show it – now.’ And so I thought, if something is not easy to do or if something does not scare you when you’re playing it onstage, then it’s not worth doing.”

But then Vela gets to flip around and play Steph, the resentful woman in reasons to be pretty who starts by shredding her clueless boyfriend, played by Lee Trull.

VELA: “It is super fun to play Steph. Yeah, totally. After playing Helen and having my heart broken? That’s tough. So then I come in and play Steph and rip Lee Trull a new one every night?  Awesome. Awesome. [Laughs.]”

Vela argues LaBute’s plays aren’t misogynist for this simple reason. His men generally come off worse. LaBute’s main male characters aren’t evil (that’s usually left to the sidekicks, the real alpha males, who are savagely honest and totally selfish). Often, the main nebbishes simply don’t know themselves, don’t know what they feel, don’t know what to do.

In fact, Fat Pig, Vela says, is not really about a woman being fat and being ostracized for it. Forty years ago, she says, it could have been about being African-American. It’s about whatever superficial thing people will let themselves be cowed over, run their lives.

So LaBute’s men face a painful reckoning with such failings. What the playwright says about Tom (Regan Adair) in Fat Pig has a wider application here.

LaBUTE: “In the end, it really becomes a study in weakness – of a guy who finds in himself something that I would find rather unpleasant about myself, which is, I’m a coward.”

But then, calling these “The Weakness Trilogy” or “The Lack of Self-Knowledge Plays” probably wouldn’t sound as attractive — as conventionally, conveniently appealing  — as The Beauty Plays.

Photo of Neil Labute from the Guardian