Speaking of Mormon masculinity, once-Mormon playwright Neil Labute premiered his new play this week, Fat Pig. Wait, that didn’t come out right. What I meant to say is that Labute, undoubtedly the most prolific and critically acclaimed –not to mention reviled and misunderstood–Mormon-connected playwright working in the professional theater today, has a new play out in which, no surprise here, men behave badly. Labute’s plots tend to be perversely simple until a devastating twist throws the end, and Fat Pig is no exception: Tom finds himself drawn to a woman of size, but he’s also embarrassed by her overweight, and he struggles to reconcile his new relationship with with the caustic contributions of a co-worker and his ex-firlfriend (played by the reportedly Mormon Keri Russell.) A tireless provocateur and implacable moralist, Labute’s cruel wit and poisonous observation of human nature and relationships tends to polarize his audiences, who emerge either praising or cursing the man–and Fat Pig promises have the same effect.
Labute’s 1997 breakout film was In the Company of Men, another story of men initiating relationship with a socially vulnerable woman, and in the creative frenzy of the intervening years–Labute has premiered an astonishing five new plays in as many years–the playwright has returned again and again to the sickeningly pleasurable spectacle of men being first-class jerks. (Labute’s women are no angels, either, particularly in the recent play/film The Shape of Things, but men are his great subjects–and in this limited sense his work can be compared to David Mamet’s unsettling chronicles of American masculinity.) Whether Labute’s world of men is repellently misogynistic or visionarily satiric of American masculinity I will leave to greater minds. What it is not is recognizably Mormon: I have not recognized anything particularly Mormon in the behaviors and attitudes of Labute’s cruel, weak-minded, misanthropic men. Until now. The tendency to fetishize women’s physical beauty, to value women’s beauty over intellect, to relate to one another by means of their relationships to beautiful and ugly women–these aspects of masculinity I recognize in Mormon versions of the same. On my mission I heard nearly daily the time-worn missionary aphorism, “The more obedient the missionary, the prettier the wife.” Back at BYU, the same impulse inexorably dictated dating patterns. There are many blessed exceptions to the tendency, of course–my own husband, and, undoubtedly, much of the present company, chief among them–nor are women wholly innocent of the same offenses.
That this play should distill some recognizable Mormon masculinity is something of an irony, because this is Labute’s first play to premiere since he cut ties with the Church. A convert during his college years at BYU, Labute was disfellowshiped a few years ago following the production of his savage play bash, which depicted violently homophobic and explicitly Mormon characters. According to an NPR interview, Labute recently disassociated himself from the Church, a move which seems to have coincided with the dissolution of his marriage to an LDS woman. The timing of his religious departure and the premiere of this play is doubly ironic, for, in a major artistic departure, this is Labute’s first play to end with a glimmer of redemption–and if there is any sure identifying marker of Mormon literature, it is the redemptive ending. In fact, Labute’s work has always struck me as fundamentally compatible with the Mormon worldview, although his plays would surely offend the sensibilities of many Mormons: Labute’s moral universe, like the Book of Mormon’s, is inexorably “restorationist,” evil being restored unto evil and wickedness never being happiness. And now that Labute’s sense of the evils of the natural man seems to be moderating a bit, and the redemptive ending is making its appearance, his work may become more recognizably “Mormon.” It would be supremely ironic if Labute left the church only to become, for the first time, a Mormon playwright. Whatever the direction of his work, I’m sorry that Labute has left the church, and I wish him the best in his artistic endeavors.