Here is a shocker that Neil LaBute didn’t write into one of his dark, twisty, intentionally upsetting plays.
“All the Ways to Say I Love You,” which opens downtown Wednesday, Sept. 28, at MCC Theater and stars Judith Light, will be his 10th full-length work produced by the Off-Broadway company since 2002. All this, even after his debut, “The Mercy Seat,” starring Sigourney Weaver and Liev Schreiber, was nothing less daring than the first — and pretty much the last — fiction here to use 9/11 as a springboard for a drama about personal, not international perfidy.
LaBute, you see, is not an obvious choice for anything as comfy-sounding and steady as playwright-in-residence. And this feels just right to Bernard Telsey, who co-founded the sharp-elbowed company 30 years ago with another Long Island-raised colleague, Robert LuPone.
Telsey, who hails from Elmont, recalls “falling in love” with LaBute’s first major production in New York, the 1999 “Bash: Latter-day Plays,” which starred Calista Flockhart, Paul Rudd and Ron Eldard in a three chilling one-acts that, for starters, involved infanticide, Greek revenge myths, gay bashing and romantic Mormon college kids on a hate spree in Manhattan.
LaBute already had made his reputation as writer-director of two extravagantly unpleasant and fine movies, “In the Company of Men” (1997) and “Your Friends & Neighbors” (1998), which both used the male psyche as a blunt instrument for nervous entertainment. To make his artist portrait even more unlikely, he studied theater at Brigham Young University and was — but is no longer — Mormon.
Telsey eventually asked LaBute to let the company read his next play, which Telsey, now also a big-time casting director, claims he had also told “a million other people. But about eight minutes later, Neil started sending stuff,” Telsey told me during a phone interview from London where he is casting the movie “Mary Poppins Returns.” “We read ‘Mercy Seat,’ and exclaimed, ‘Oh my God. This is scary. This is so us.’ ”
LaBute, who doesn’t sound a bit scary on the phone from Los Angeles, expands on the unusual value of having a New York company to call home. “People certainly build careers without one,” he says, adding that MCC has also produced readings of at least 10 of his other plays for benefits and special events. “I like having a place that’s interested in my work and honest with me. They actually have an opinion and they are kind enough to tell me to my face. They don’t decide to do everything, but they’re like a family, friends.” He also has work produced often at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles and at other New York nonprofits. “But I continually come back. It’s part of my world.”
The homey picture contrasts wildly with the brinkmanship of most of his plays. Some of my favorites include “This Is How It Goes” (2005), that placed Ben Stiller amid harrowing layers of racism; “Wrecks” (2006), a devastating monologue for Ed Harris about his dead wife; “The Way We Get By” (2015), an almost shockingly sensitive duet for Thomas Sadoski and Amanda Seyfried; and “The Money Shot” (2014), which found ever-new ways to make fun of celebrities.
But LaBute, the dark star of both modern morality plays and misanthropy, is probably more firmly identified with cruel surprises and gleefully mean-spirited guys with awful attitudes about women. Think “Fat Pig,” about a guy’s discomfort with the size of his date and “reasons to be pretty,” about a man who sets off a catastrophe by telling a pal that his girlfriend’s face is “just regular.”
I ask how it feels when audiences attack him as a misogynist when he is really writing about — some would say celebrating — misogynistic men. “This is so simple and facile,” he answers with weary exasperation about familiar accusations. “Who has the time and energy to keep explaining?” He mentions that he doesn’t tweet.
LaBute was politically incorrect long before it was a staple of presidential discourse. “Even as a kid, I saw that negative attention brings you attention,” he says, explaining what often seems like sympathy for guys who could be insult buddies with Donald Trump. “It’s kind of childish. But to keep getting attention, you have to keep upping the ante. It’s one thing in fiction writing, another in politicians.”
A master of plot twists, even his more frustrating work has a graceful, subversive craftsmanship. Through the years, however, audiences began to wait for the twist — wait with dread, suspicion, even impatience for the moment when everything they were set up to believe gets slapped into something unexpected and shocking.
Inevitably, perhaps, LaBute taught audiences to trust him to betray them. Then they feel betrayed when he does not. He admits, clearly aware of the perils of expectations, that the twist became something of a burden. “If I have no twist, someone will say ‘that’s the twist.’ There’s a point where I can’t win. They put you into a box . . . you are that guy. But I keep chugging along, writing what suits me. What’s the next play or movie, what’s the next story lurking?”
This next story, “All the Ways to Say I Love You,” is a monologue in which Light plays a high school English teacher and guidance counselor who looks back on her life. In previews, it is causing more controversy than LaBute ever expected. “Race has become a part of the conversation,” he says, surprised at the reaction. “People are worried that I am perpetuating a stereotype. Things I wrote down I never thought would have an impact like that.”
He is convinced that no subject should be untouchable. Rather, he insists, “it’s how well you do it.” Still, he acknowledges that “people are very sensitive right now about this.” Some ask what right a white male author has to create a white female character who talks about the black experience. “What right do I have to do that?” he asks without really needing to answer.
“Can you write about a murder if you haven’t been murdered? Of course you can. It’s how well you have done it and what you have to say about it. It’s my job to raise questions. What would we have done in that position?”
MCC has produced such pitch-dark plays as “Wit,” about a woman’s death from cancer; “The Grey Zone,” about Auschwitz; and “Frozen,” in which the protagonist is a child molester and serial killer. In 2007, Telsey told Newsday that the company’s mission is to do “plays beyond the conventional fare.”
He still agrees. Whether people like a play or not, Telsey wants it to “have a third act, when people talk about what happened on the stage.” LaBute, who never has had a written contract with the theater, knows how to make people talk. Most of the time, he also makes us think.