By Carrie Chapter, Philadelphia Theatre Company
Last month, we lived in the kingdom of playwright Neil LaBute here in Philadelphia. The final play in LaBute’s Beauty Plays trilogy, the purposely lower-cased reasons to be pretty closed the 2011-2012 PTC season in a triumphant Philadelphia premiere. In a celebrated standard for season “closers”, PTC definitely did not end its year with a languid sigh, but rather a vociferous scream. What better way to wave adieu than to present a passionate cast of characters who could only spring from the mind of Neil LaBute!
You never can tell how regional audiences will receive LaBute’s work; its profanity, its controversy, and its sexual politics create a range of impressions that some believe to be generationally determined. However, during Previews, there were some of our veteran patrons of an older generation on the edge of their seats, enraptured by the ferocity of the performances – an astounding and welcomed surprise! Of course, raves from the younger generation, a host of college students, were very apparent as well throughout the run of the show. I clearly recall the visceral reactions from a group of students in the mezzanine, whose laughter and admonishing “ooo”’s could be heard through the monitors. Even my own family reacted to each character when they attended the show, talking out loud at several moments – I had to remind them we’re no longer in the interactive age of agitprop theatre.
Our Patron Enrichment Programming (PEP) corralled the unfettered audience response in the form of various pre-and post-show events. Our Meet-the-Artist Talkbacks with the cast were well-attended (one of which even took place in the midst of Philly Beer Fest, much to the delight of our actors!); during the audience Q&A, many patrons inquired after the male-female relationship dynamic, and especially how the actresses contended with some of the emotional cruelty in the play. Our Book Club for this production featured Jennifer Egan’s Look At Me, which was selected to parallel the play in terms of beauty perception and the cultural politics which ultimately define the value of appearance. The Backstage Tour was especially gratifying for this production; it was one of our most enthusiastic groups to date. What struck me as particularly rare and charming was an older woman donning a cane who was all smiles as she said, “I sat in the front row, and I absolutely loved this play. I don’t think it’s only for young people at all; I want to hear cursing and enjoy these characters as much as anyone else, and you know what? I did.” Our Special Topics panel had a similar draw under the title: “Eye Candy: How We Define the Fairest of Them All, which was expertly moderated by UPenn’s Dr. Robert Kurzban. And, I cannot forget the toast of the event lineup: our American Playwrights in Context (APIC) onstage interview with playwright Neil LaBute. Former Executive Director of the American Theatre Wing, Howard Sherman, interviewed Mr. LaBute in a stirring, candid conversation. And, for a moment, I had faith in the future of theatergoing audiences when I saw a group of twentysomethings before the APIC matinee spot our playwright, and, with full recognition, excitedly whisper, “Oh my gosh! That’s Neil LaBute!”