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Renowned writer and director Neil LaBute has mastered the art of turning our relationships into lacerating, ironic and yet still entertaining productions that have recently charmed Israeli theater-goers.
The Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv is performing several shows of LaBute's 2004 play Fat Pig and Center Stage Theater in Jerusalem is set to open the show Some Girl(s) with a never before performed scene at the Merkaz Hamagshimim Theater.
LaBute believes that his work appeals to Israelis for its brutal but subtly sardonic exploration of how people face life and relationships either with or without courage.
"In a part of the world where people face danger in their day to day lives, where going out shopping could be taking your life in your hands, you are asked to be a different kind of person," LaBute tells The Jerusalem Post.
"In a time when people are constantly asked to be strong and live very close to physical violence that breaks out without warning the question of courage is a huge. It is a necessary commodity; one that people hope they have. Watching someone trying and failing to be strong is probably an interesting experience living in these times - especially in Israel."
LaBute has garnered praise for both his theatrical productions and movies. One of his accolades include the Filmmakers Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival. His plays have opened in New York and London starring well known actors such as Liev Schreiber, Fran Drescher, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Stiller, Eric McCormick and David Schwimmer.
His films include In the Company of Men (New York Critics' Circle Award for Best First Feature, Filmmakers' Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival), Your Friends and Neighbors, Nurse Betty, Possession, and The Shape of Things, a film adaptation of his play by the same title.
Fat Pig, playing at the Cameri, has won critical acclaim for its look at the darker side of aesthetics. An attractive, well put together, successful man falls in love with an extremely overweight woman. As his colleagues attempt to undermine their relationship, Tom, the main character, struggles to transition his affair with Helen from his private life into the public view.
"People are constantly trying to make connections with other people," says LaBute. "Particularly in a play like Fat Pig, when a connection is working well but the people are unable to protect it, the message is quite universal. It is a study in weakness. A person who can't stand up for what he believes in is a character that is familiar and within us all. He is being asked to be a braver person than he is. We are all faced with this struggle." To be faced with challenges that test courage whether in relationships or in the day to day movements of life is something that an Israeli audience has a more acute understanding of, says LaBute, than audiences in New York or Los Angeles or London.
"For everyone in the audience Helen's drama is very real," says actress Irit Kaplan who plays the leading female character in Fat Pig. "You cannot watch this woman and be unaffected by her story."
Some girl(s) also looks at one man's relationship with the women in his life, as do most LaBute works. Guy, the play's lead man, meets with four of his old lovers to set things right with them before his upcoming wedding.
Orit Arfa, one of the plays leading ladies, reflects on the emotional challenges the women face as they find themselves on the periphery of Guy's life-story, but at the heart of the play.
"He is a proverbial jerk, but almost accidentally so. He doesn't seem to realize the way in which he has impacted these women's lives," says Arfa. "As his character develops throughout the play, it becomes clearer how devastating these casual encounters are for the women."
Reggie, the woman played by Arfa, was written after the first production of Some Girl(s) opened in London in 2005.
Without giving too much information away, Reggie remembers with a deep, sorrowful anger an encounter with Guy from when she was a child. In this new revelatory scene, Guy's inability to handle confrontation becomes painfully apparent. Gradually his awkward, self-sure manner ceases to be funny, and becomes not only tragic, but harmful.
LaBute took an active role in preparing this scene for production. The play's director Michael Jaffe said this attention to the play was both flattering and necessary in order to smooth over the now present transitions in a slightly redesigned work.
"One of the actresses withdrew from the production at an advanced stage, and so we were faced with a decision on how to proceed," says Jaffe. "At that point, we contacted his agent because one of the stipulations that we had getting the rights to show the work at all was to notify him if any changes were made. When we did, he became involved personally." "LaBute wanted to change some lines of the play in order to make it flow more effectively," Jaffe explains. "The play is cyclical. It ends the way it begins. Every scene ends with the same one or two words that the next scene begins. He needed to make that kind of change in a couple of the lines in order to maintain that. The fact that he took an interest at all is flattering."
Under the guidance of Jaffe the actors appear to have mastered the restrained but devastating humor and soul that plague LaBute characters.
"Though not my original intention or thought, this play can be seen as a wry reflection of America as a whole," says LaBute of the leading man in Some Girl(s). "You look at the poor idiot in Some Girl(s); he isn't harmless, but he is so silly in the end. Malicious or not, he makes the same bumbling mistakes over and over again. Guys have an amazing capacity for doing the same damn thing over and over." In final analysis, LaBute's plays leave the audience feeling that perhaps we all have that capacity. LaBute just presents it with in such a way as to render us brutally aware of our faults while continuing to entertain.
Some Girl(s) is already playing at Merkaz Hamagshimim and runs through the 17th. To reserve tickets, call 02-561-9165 X 202. Fat Pig will show again at the Cameri Theater on April 16. Contact 03-606-1910 for more information.