Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Mormon-bashing with Neil LaBute

Playwright Neil LaBute (at left) is a special case. And perhaps a hard case, at least for a critic (like me) who shares his political and intellectual sympathies, yet still takes slight offense at his methods. I admit I keep hoping he'll dispel my doubts about his stage work as thoroughly as he did on the movie screen with his first (and best) film, In the Company of Men. But it keeps on not working out that way.

Take, for instance, Bash: Latter-Day Plays, which just concluded its run this weekend, in a solid production from Theatre on Fire. The play consists of three confessions, each from seemingly-innocent citizens - Your Friends and Neighbors, as LaBute's second film would have it; that is, if your neighbors were Mormons. (I'm not sure the last confessor is a Mormon, but she well could be.) These types are bright, attractive, wholesome, even toothsome - they're each a sparkling slice of American apple pie. Only the pie is laced with poison; beneath the crust of each piece lurks a loathsome crime, most of which go unpunished (again, only the last perpetrator faces justice - perhaps because she's not a Mormon!).

So far, so good, I suppose, and certainly LaBute is smart enough (quite smart enough) to devise an ironic, literary armature beneath the surface of each speech: while his character's actual lines are pure suburban-vanilla, indeed a brilliant parody of business- and sports-driven American prattle, the playwright weaves in clever references to the terrible archetypes of the ancient Greeks - so his girls-on-the-go and masters-of-the-universe weirdly ramify toward both banality and tragedy.

The trouble, I think, lies in their Mormonism, which seems to float as some sort of oblique counterpoint to their terrible crimes (child-killing and gay-bashing). Is LaBute whispering in our ears, "Listen, Mormons kill their children!"? He seems to want to, and not want to, at the same time - yet in the end, that's the impression he leaves.

But what would our reaction be to these plays if his characters were depicted as Jews, or Muslims? (I'll save these comparisons to religious groups which are, like the Mormons, considered "marginal" in America.) After all, there are certainly Jews and Muslims who have killed their children, and bashed gays (just as I'm sure there are Mormons who have done so). But if LaBute had styled his characters as Jews, wouldn't we clamor for some sort of justification for the seeming tie he's implying between his chosen religion and the crimes he describes?

It's true that in one of these "latter-day" plays, the offense (gay-bashing) is obviously linked to Mormon ideology (which villifies homosexuality). But alas, Orthodox Judaism does much the same thing, and so does Islam; they're just about as sexist and homophobic as Mormonism (just ask Bruno!). And LaBute doesn't seem to make an actual tie explicit between his criminals' religion and their actions. Indeed, he covers some extra bases by making his Mormons attend Boston College - just to include squeaky-clean Catholics in his campaign of innuendo, I suppose.

One could argue, of course, that LaBute is absolved of his own form of minority-bashing by the fact that he's "really" attacking that all-American wholesomeness that Mormons and conservative Catholics exploit and identify with (and of course Jews and Muslims aren't reliably Republican). That contention perhaps gets LaBute off the political hook, but does it really get him off the artistic hook? Somehow I don't think so; he still has to answer the question of precisely why these characters' religion matters to our understanding of their actions.

But to many observers in these latter days, such a question probably seems moot, because identity politics is creeping further and further into the foundations of what we imagine "aesthetics" are. (Note, for instance, the recent review of Sarah Ruhl's Dead Man's Cell Phone that unconsciously slides from aesthetic judgment into political endorsement. And don't get me started on the relentless identity-politics babble from most of the 'cultural' blogs.) That identity politics are often steeped in what was once called "the politics of resentment" isn't lost on me, either. For LaBute is rather obviously all but dripping with resentment for his vicious college athletes and child-killing salesmen.

Tellingly, however, the playwright transcends his own yen for personal payback in the piece that floats the most free from both Mormonism and, for lack of a better word, physical attractiveness. In Medea Redux, a woman wronged recounts her resulting crime-against-nature in a truly chilling, just-the-facts-ma'am style (into a police recorder, no less) and somehow, stripped of LaBute's political agenda, the piece does brush the cold, inexplicable high places of Greek tragedy. Much of this is due to the performance of Kate Donnelly, who cannily focuses almost exclusively on the blank minutiae of her character's affect (her burning cigarette, etc.) and thus subtly conveys her inability to even articulate to herself the reasons for what she has done. As a result, at the end of her monologue, the audience does, indeed, finally feel as if they've been bashed, too.


  1. i'm a huge fan of 'bash'. and, of labute's unfailing straight on dealings with the things in life that make us turn our head.

    after i read this review, i flipped open my copy of 'bash'...and, as i remembered, all references to the lds faith had been removed. labute has stated he made the characters mormon only because that was his faith at the time, and he was comfortable writing, well, about it, as it were.

    to judge this work using the mormon faith angle is to miss the brutal beauty of the words, thoughts and to put aside his of observations of how people think.

    just my two cents.

  2. The subtitle of the piece is "Latter-Day Plays," which seems rather a broad hint, doesn't it? Also, at least in this production, there also seemed to be Mormon references in the gay-bashing play and I believe in the first baby-snuffing episode. As I said, I didn't notice any in the final piece.

    And I'm afraid I'm not as big a fan of the work in general as you are. LaBute always seems a bit "thin" to me in dramatic terms, and "Bash" was no exception.

    And at any rate, does the fact that he removed the original references from the published version of the plays really change their underlying meaning? Does that somehow "universalize" them? I don't think so. LaBute's intentions and drives remain rather obvious despite the self-censoring. What's interesting is that he did the censoring.

  3. I'm not sure I understand your point. Do you find it distasteful that Labute is bashing Mormons, or bashing Mormons without bashing other religions too?

    As I gay man I have to say I felt that he let Mormons off easy. "But what would our reaction be to these plays if his characters were depicted as Jews, or Muslims?" Mine would be the same. They're all guilty of bigotry and complicit in violence against gay people.

  4. Of course we expect pop culture to function in the way you imply - "Trash those Nazis, Quentin!" Tarantino fans cried, no doubt, in his last picture, pumping their fists at the ceiling, etc. But we - or at least I - expect something different from art; I'm not interested in watching LaBute take potshots at a religion (however much that religion may deserve it!) while at the same time whipping up some half-baked parallel to Iphigenia at Aulis. (And of course if the playwright had cast his killers as Jews, "Bash" would never have seen the light of day in New York.)

  5. @ Thomas Garvey

    "And of course if the playwright had cast his killers as Jews, "Bash" would never have seen the light of day in New York." Too true, and that's kind of my point.

    I guess I just wonder what you'd say is an appropriate means of criticizing religions in art. To me, the comparison between Bash and Inglorious Basterds seems pretty extreme.

  6. Well, if that's "kind of your point," then we seem to be in agreement that "Bash" is a form of high-cult propaganda rather than high art. And there's certainly a place for that in the marketplace (certainly!), but I do feel that LaBute kind of wants to sneak his play under the "high art" banner too (the same way Tarantino want to sneak his pictures in), and I don't think it belongs there. To be blunt, a high level of self-consciousness, and a smart deployment of college-course tropes, do not automatically turn propaganda into art.

    As for what I think is "an appropriate means of criticizing religions in art" - well, it's not really my place to prescribe art; my job as a critic more centers on analyzing the forms that artists present. But it seems obvious that any "appropriate" means of criticizing a religion would require an honesty that LaBute doesn't seem to exhibit in this case. If Quin Browne is right, and he deleted all explicit references to Mormonism in the printed script, that only makes the issue more problematic; the piece is already troubling because we sense that child-killing is somehow to be linked to Mormonism (much as it was to Jews in the Middle Ages), but then it turns out the author has also erased that explicit, original connection in print. Alas, that doesn't make the connection "go away"; it still remains embedded in the cultural memory of the piece, and indeed is reflected in many of its details. There could certainly be an honest way to criticize Mormons for their attitudes on stage - criticisms which they richly deserve, of course. But this isn't that way.

  7. the last time i saw this, it was promo'd as "bash--three plays"

    i remain firm in my feelings this play is about how people would react, not just mormons. (i lived for 10 years in utah... interesting place).

    when i write, if i bring in a faith or a pov based on faith, i use catholics, because that is what i know.

    remember, this play is one of the reasons labute was eventually dis-fellowed by the church (although he left it completely on his own terms)

    and, i remain firm in my appreciation of labute's works. no, not all of them are his best, but, they are indeed nice (bad word choice?) bits of how nasty people can be to each other...and to themselves.

    to be truthful, i feel the bedrock of labute's work is the emotion 'love'. how we treat it, how we abuse it, who we will stomp in our quest for it, how we lie and cheat and, well, murder, in that search.

    again, my simple two cents.(wait, i think i'm up to four cents now, right?)