Neil Labute's 'Fat Pig'

Playwright Neil Labute talks about his most recent work, Fat Pig, which explores how society treats a romance between a young single man and his overweight girlfriend. The Studio Theater in Washington, D.C., is showcasing the play along with a few of his other works.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Playwright/filmmaker Neil Labute has been called a misogynist, a misanthrope, and a cynic. Other descriptions include the angriest white man, a spoil sport, even a downer. But for somebody to get that kind of a name calling and still be around is a testament to some other qualities. He's been described as a genius, the dark star of the American theater, or as one critic described him, a virtuoso about writing about sick puppies.

If you've seen one of his plays or movies, such as In the Company of Men or The Shape of Things, they can be difficult to watch, but almost as difficult to turn away from. The Studio Theater in Washington, D.C., is showcasing his latest play, 'Fat Pig', along with a couple of his other works. He's our guest today. If you have questions for Neil Labute about his work, give us a call, 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. The email address is talk@npr.org.

And Neil Labute joins us now from a studio at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Thanks so much for being with us today.

Mr. NEIL LABUTE (Playwright, Filmmaker, Author): Hi, Neal, how are you?

CONAN: I'm well. With a title like 'Fat Pig', it doesn't take a lot of imagination to get the gist of the kind of brutal honesty you're trying to get at in that play.

Mr. LABUTE: No, it sort of gets to the heart of the matter right there. It was one of those titles that sort of came to me before the play, and it just seemed like such a, a right fit for the idea that came immediately after. I just thought it, you know, not, not as an attention-grabber, although it kind of...

CONAN: It does that, yeah.

Mr. LABUTE: It can't help but do that, supposedly, since it's had, you know, time playing in New York, and now playing in Washington, and, and overseas, as well. But I think beyond that, it's a term that you know gets hurled at people.

You know, I deal with the imagination. I make stories up. These people didn't come from my childhood, or I didn't see it happening in an office. I made it up. But I know that people have heard that thrown at them and the idea, you know, was a pretty potent one to take and then, and make a story built around that.

CONAN: But to listen to a clip, this is an excerpt from the opening scene of the play. In fact, the, the character named Helen is in a restaurant at the beginning of the play eating some pizza, and a young man, we'll learn his name is Tom, walks in.

(Soundbite from play)

Helen: (in play) I thought you meant me before.

Tom: (in play) I'm sorry?

Helen: (in play) Uh, when you said that. Pretty big, I thought you were saying that to me. About me.

Tom: (in play) Oh, no, God, no. I wouldn't, you did?

Helen: (in play) For a second.

Tom: (in play) No, that, that would be rude. Still, I mean, why would I do that? Besides, I'm not a...

Helen: (in play) You'd be surprised. People say all kinds of things, here.

Tom: (in play) In this place?

Helen: (in play) No, not just here, this restaurant, or anything. I mean, in this city.

Tom: (in play) Hm.

CONAN: An excerpt from Neil Labute's play, 'Fat Pig', that from the New York performance. And, really, the rest of the play almost goes on like that for quite a while, the Helen character seeming to trip up the Tom character, who makes all these verbal gaffes.

Mr. LABUTE: Well, I think it is a, it's a play that people can look at that title and think it's, you know, going to be one thing, and I, I think it does turn out to be something else. It ends up being as much a study in weakness as anything, and particularly, the weakness of this man who falls in love with someone, and then doesn't have the, whatever you want to call it, the backbone I guess is the thing we tend to throw around, the spine to live up to those convictions.

He has a private life and a public life, and he can't marry them in the end, and, and so that's what was fascinating in that play. As I wrote it, I had to shift from it being about one thing into seeing that it really was about how, how weak someone can be in the face of, you know, it's easy to say we would do this or do that, or be strong or save someone, and in the end when you have to actually do it, it's a much trickier bargain.

CONAN: Yeah, and these are not exactly bosom buddies who he is trying to stay along with. I mean, these are the people he hangs out with, but he doesn't particularly like them, the people who sort of rein him back into the mainstream, who exploit his weakness.

Mr. LABUTE: Yeah, no, that's, I think, the funny thing about, about life, how we often align ourselves with people whom we don't necessarily, as you say, even like. And yet, we live with them, because it's, it's just that much easier to go under the radar, you know, to not create a problem.

And I think this is a character who doesn't like the, to get into conflict. And probably myself, I can see myself, you know, in that character, it's that somebody who much prefers, you know, a very even keeled person to deal with. And I think of myself as that. But the flaw of that is that you can also be a procrastinator or, or someone who, you know, creates a great deal more strife by just continually dodging the, you know, the, the anguish that you think that would come with an actual fight.

CONAN: I think, I sure saw some of myself in that character, and I think, in fact, a lot of other people did too. Is that what makes us cringe, and at the same time, is that what makes it work?

Mr. LABUTE: Well, I suppose there's a bit of that on both sides, that you recognize the behavior. I think that the piece, not unlike, like something I think that's out there right now in movie theaters for people, Brokeback Mountain. People go to a movie like that and they see the unrequited love in that rather than just the specifics of, here's two, you know, sheepherders from the 1960's, I don't have any identification with that, and yet I understand the idea of falling in love with someone and not be able to be with them. And that's what I think that any number of people in any number of situations can look at a piece like 'Fat Pig' and say, that's me, in the general sense. And I think that's the best quality that theater or literature or the cinema can have, is that something very specific can speak to a general audience because of the nature of what the themes are.

CONAN: If you'd like to join our conversation with Neal Labute, 800-989-8255, or you can send us email, talk@npr.org. Let's start with Carrie (ph). Carrie's calling us from, is that Golden Hill, California?

CARRIE (Caller): Yep. Golden Hill, that's part of San Diego.

CONAN: Okay, go ahead please.

CARRIE (Caller): Um, well I just wanted to say that I finally saw In the Company of Men, after my friend said, no, no, no! You have to see it, but you're going to freak out! And I freaked out, because I loved it. I really thought it was amazing.

My question is that, you know, you create these characters that are, many of which are unfortunately fairly, are fairly true to life. I mean, you didn't make these people, but unfortunately they remind us of others. Why do you think people have such a reaction towards you in general?

Mr. LABUTE: I think that, yeah, a lot of what people see is, in a character they see, you know, something that, as you say, something that rings true to them, and yet they don't really want it to be true. They understand the behavior and go I've seen that sort of person'. I've been accused of a lot of things, but no one has really looked at the work and said that it's, they might say it's far-fetched, but they don't say it's science fiction. They don't say those people just don't exist on our planet. And so for me, it's really -- I think to them, I'm always looking for something that's unique; a different approach to a love story or a different approach to the workplace, that kind of thing. That's my job -- to spin a new tale, you know, or take an old tale and spin it in a new way.

But I think that some of the techniques that I use, where I, I try not to be too judgmental with characters or stories, and the one that you mentioned, In the Company of Men, is a good example of a story that doesn't end the way we've traditionally been brought up to believe stories end. That the bad guy, as it were, doesn't get his just reward for being bad; at least not in the, you know, 90 minutes that we watch him. So I think that kind of thing is unsettling to people.

How I often wrap up, or choose not to wrap up a story, that's -- I think people will allow a lot to happen during the course of a movie or a play or a book. But in the end, they want to be satisfied that all those, the strings have been tied so that they can put that back on the shelf or leave the cinema and not have to deal with it. But often I kind of leave this unwrapped package in their lap and say okay, this is your mess now. I just brought up the questions, now you figure it out.

CONAN: For those who don't understand the charges of misogyny involving the movie In the Company of Men, we'll play a clip from the film. It's about two, ruthless corporate climbers who play a terrible trick on a lonely secretary, who's also deaf, by romancing her and then dumping her simultaneously.

(Soundbite of movie 'In the Company of Men')

Mr. AARON ECKHART (Actor): (As Chad) And suddenly she's got two men. She's calling her mom, she's wearing makeup again, and on we play, and on and on, and then one day, out goes the rug, and us pulling it hard. And Jill, she just comes tumbling after. Whoa.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ECKHART: An hour later we're on a flight back to civilization like nothing ever happened.

CONAN: Like nothing ever happened. Boy is that cruel.

Mr. LABUTE: That is, you know, that probably is some of the cruelest writing that I've done. I've done some stuff that I would think of as brutal and tough and also, you know, surprisingly tender. I mean, tender for me anyway.

But that character in particular, Chad, played by Aaron Eckhart, someone I've worked with a number of times, I think he was probably the more, most outright cruel person because he's so aware of what he's doing and has the ruthlessness to go through with it. Then he, in the first 10 minutes of the film, he tells us what he's going to do, and I think, again, story-wise, we're used to things happening: he'll fall in love with the girl, he'll get into a car accident and have an epiphany, something, you know, there'll be some story change, but he tells you in the first few moments, this is what I'm going to do. And then he proceeds to do it. And you kind of stand back and go, oh my gosh! I hate to believe that somebody could be that, you know, awful.

CONAN: Yeah. Yeah. Carrie, thanks very much for the call.

CARRIE (Caller): Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go to Carley (ph). Carley calling from Philadelphia.

CARLEY (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

CARLEY (Caller): I have a question, Mr. Labute. I'm currently playing Cammie in a production of The Distance From Here in Philadelphia.

Mr. LABUTE: Oh! Congratulations.

CARLEY (Caller): And I would like to know whether you, yourself, happen to be a misanthrope.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Hmm. You don't just hate women, you hate everybody.

Mr. LABUTE: Yeah, I'm an American. I'm an equal opportunity hater.

CARLEY (Caller): I'm asking, really asking.

Mr. LABUTE: You're really asking?

CARLEY (Caller): Yes.

Mr. LABUTE: Okay, so I have to be really serious then.

CARLEY (Caller): I was just trying to call you a name.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: No, no, no...

Mr. LABUTE: See that's easy enough.

CONAN: ...that's my job.

Mr. LABUTE: Yeah. No, I, you know, how could I answer that any way but no, um, unless I was honest. And God forbid that should happen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LABUTE: No, of course I don't see myself as someone who hates people. I think that's the essential tag for a misanthrope. I find myself much more positive, much more hopeful a person than I think a lot of what people see on the page. It's just -- I'm always looking, I'm looking for a fight on paper, you know?

My job is to create conflict; conflict is drama. So I'm looking to walk into a perfectly nice family or business arrangement and mess it up. And, often in the same way that the actors will tell you, I mean, you probably know this, being an actor, you hear all the time an actor who has suddenly taken a part as a villain, they say, well it's so fun to play a villain, they get all the good lines. Well, they're also fun to write. You get to write all those good lines. And so, I wouldn't shy away from the fact that I've created a great deal of conflict on the page and left things unresolved and it seems as if there's a cynical or, you know, I would certainly say I'm a skeptical person.

I think it's very hard in this society today to take the time to be caring, to worry about other people. And, you know, relationships take work. And that's not just, you know, love relationships, but work and friends, and you have to, you know, give of yourself. And I think people do a lot of just getting by. And, I think that's a pretty real and cruel thing that people do, is they just slide by with enough effort to make it into the next day. So I just tend to chronicle that, and not put a, you know, a spin on it that says that we're, we should be better or we will, or, you know, there's a chance around the corner that we'll be better. I kind of call them as I see them, and yet I, at the end of the day, I feel like a person who always hopes that things are going to work out for people or for myself, but with a completely clear-eyed view that things often just don't.

CONAN: Taking notes there, Carley?

CARLEY (Caller): Yeah. I mean, in the production of The Distance from Here, people, you know, often, are just, like they feel, the audience feels walloped. They just feel like they've been sucker-punched.

Mr. LABUTE: Well, then my work here is done.

CARLEY (Caller): And the producer said that his goal in producing the play is that people will come to see it and then they'll go home and hug their kids.

Mr. LABUTE: That's not such a bad thing. I mean, that's, then my job is well done. Because it...

CARLEY (Caller): Yeah.

Mr. LABUTE: ...I certainly think that, you know, that you do look at a, at that particular play, I mean that play is much closer to me in a lot of ways than other things I've written. Because, it's more the way I grew up. Certainly not exactly that way, but I grew up around the kind of people in The Distance from Here far more than the kind of white collar, urban living characters that I've written a great deal about. So that, those kids who are parentless or at least fatherless and, you know, kind of moving just from day to day through a sort of very lower middle class America, a very marginalized, almost invisible population, it's very hard to be positive, or to feel, you know, that anybody does care about you. And so, you know, charting that world doesn't mean that I hate them, although if I'm honest, as I said in the preface, they're the kind of people that I probably would sit far away from at McDonalds. And yet I feel some affinity for them because I saw that hopelessness even back in school, where they just, you know, they weren't thinking about what college are they going to go to, they were thinking about what crap job am I going to get so I can get an okay car, and, you know, make it through the week.

CONAN: Carley, break a leg!

CARLEY (Caller): Thank you.

CONAN: Okay. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And let's see if we get another caller on the line. This is Don, Don's also calling from Philadelphia.

DON (Caller): Hi gentlemen. Neil, you know, you mention honesty several times and I'm a writer myself and I enjoy unveiling the nastier side of characters with a fair amount of honesty.

My question to you is, what kind of price have you paid for that honesty, among the people that surround you -- meaning, how many times do people say, gee, he's writing about me, or he's stealing a piece of me to put in there, and it's a piece I'd rather not have shown to the world?

Mr. LABUTE: Well, it's funny that you ask that, because I think there's almost, almost no one would be my answer to that. Because I'm not someone who does pull a great deal from my life, even though I say that, say The Distance from Here, I know those kind of people, having grown up around them, I don't tell, you know, specific stories blanketed in some kind of fiction. I've changed the names, for instance.

I haven't really written a coming of age story that was really my story, or, I didn't go through, you know, I didn't pull off the In the Company of Men gag, or have somebody, you know, use me as an art project, that kind of thing. I tend not to pull from the headlines or pull from my own life. I really do rely a great deal on imagination. I think what people experience is just that, the sense of, once I've created this story I'm trying to get to the truth of the matter there.

CONAN: Did you ever work in an office? We just have a few seconds left.

Mr. LABUTE: I did in fact work in an office.

CONAN: And was David Mammoth (ph) your boss?

Mr. LABUTE: You know, one would wish. I mean, there's a guy who could teach anyone a lesson or two.

CONAN: The Office just seems such a compelling vision of the American office.

Mr. LABUTE: I go back to it often in my writing because I find it's such a life-sucking place where, you know, you have to conform to a certain, you know, set of rules and ideals that often, I think, take away that individual spirit in a person. And so it, it's really interesting when a person work in that environment how they have to try and switch gears back to being a caring person at home. I think it's a really difficult mix.

CONAN: Neil Labure. First of all, to Don, thank you very much for the call, appreciate it.

DON (Caller): You're welcome.

CONAN: And Neil Labute, thank you so much for joining us today. We appreciate you for taking the time.

LABUTE: Pleasure. Thank you.

CONAN: Neil Labute is a playwright, a filmmaker, and a director. He's also a prose writer. His work includes In the Company of Men and The Shape of Things. The Studio Theater in Washington is showcasing his play, 'Fat Pig', as well as two others of his works.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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