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What Kind of Television Does Neil LaBute Really Want to Make?

What Kind of Television Does Neil LaBute Really Want to Make?

Way back in September, NBC announced that it was developing “Harmony House,” a half-hour romantic-comedy series about a psychiatric resident who falls in love with a mental patient. It’s an offbeat premise, but it’s not half as strange as the announcement of who would write and serve as executive producer: Neil LaBute.

LaBute is no stranger to career curveballs — he followed his bilious black comedies “In the Company of Men” and “Your Friends & Neighbors” with the odd satire “Nurse Betty,” and a return to familiar territory of “The Shape of Things” with his wackadoo remake of “The Wicker Man” and a pair of work-for-hire jobs (“Lakeview Terrance,” “Death at a Funeral”). He’s an uneven filmmaker, not to mention divisive, with his caustic voice often curdling into airless misanthropy and misogyny whenever his portraits of male pathology lose their sense of autocriticism. But whatever can be said for his films and plays, he’s remained an interesting voice in film and theater, with his 2008 play “reasons to be pretty” (all lower-case) showing that he can be just as incisive now as he was when he first arrived on the scene.

That still leaves one dramatic arena for LaBute: television. In theory, LaBute’s gifts for cutting dialogue and prickly characters lend themselves perfectly to the small screen, particularly in an era where writer-directors have had great success bringing risky material to television (see: Lena Dunham, Andrew Haigh). And LaBute was enthused when he talked to Indiewire about the possibilities of television. “I’m a believer in pushing yourself to do new things and that’s what TV is affording me right now,” he said. Yet LaBute’s first efforts don’t see him taking advantage of the format.

Last October, when LaBute’s “Full Circle” debuted on DirecTV’s Audience Network, it had a host of problems: characters who seemed to be part of LaBute’s constant attempt to outdo the venality of his older creations, a repetitive sense of acridity, and a structure influenced by “La Ronde” that was as exhausting as it was experimental. One of the most exasperating qualities, however, was the self-conscious staginess of the material. LaBute has never been the most visual of directors, even with his best movies, and his recent film “Some Velvet Morning” could just as easily have been called a filmed play, his statements to the contrary aside. But “Full Circle” wasn’t directed by LaBute, and it still, by its very nature, felt more like a series of bad plays than a TV series.

LaBute’s latest television effort, DirecTV’s “ten x ten,” feels even less suited to the medium. The show consists of ten 10-minute episodes, the first five of which will debut on the satellite service’s Audience Network on February 23rd at 10pm, with the latter five airing on March 12th. Each is made up of one unbroken take of an actor delivering a monologue about a relationship or encounter. One shows Fred Weller as a typically misanthropic LaBute thirtysomething alpha male going on about his antipathy for a “plain” woman he met on an airplane.

The next features Jenna Fischer of “The Office” as an early-40s woman speaking about her abusive estranged husband and the woman she’s currently in love with. Another shows Judith Light as a woman who laments that her current relationship will never have the passion of a tryst with a man she knew only for a moment.

Louisa Krause (“King Kelly”) plays a twentysomething woman who speaks about occasionally sleeping with “losers” to improve her self-esteem. Finally, Richard Kind plays a middle-aged man going on about how commitment, not passion, makes a lasting marriage, and how he has difficulty understanding the “change” of what marriage means even if he has no problem with gay men and women.

There’s no variation to the set-up: the actors are in one corner of the frame in the foreground, the background has something moving out of focus (a TV show, a fire, a man at a bar) to give some sense that there’s a world around them, the camera is roughly at the actor’s height in a medium shot. Perhaps LaBute is trying to isolate his actors, but the look gets monotonous fast, and there’s no hiding that this is essentially canned theater. He feels like he’s on autopilot with Weller and Krause’s one-note material, which hews so closely to the kind of venality that one expects from his characters that it mostly feels like blatant audience and critic baiting. But even the best monologue — Kind’s carefully measured, thoughtful depiction of a man whose definition of love is narrow even as he’s not overtly hateful — feels less like part of a greater whole and more like a bit that would stuff an actor’s monologue repertoire.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with “ten x ten” feeling minor by design, but the shorts don’t give any sense of why LaBute wanted to make them or what he wants to do on television, more an odd footnote than a chapter in his career. “Harmony House” could change that, but on paper it sounds far removed from his best work, and there’s little indication of what it will look or feel like based on his first TV outings. LaBute’s debuts in film and theater felt like the grand trumpeting of an artist announcing his arrival. By comparison, this feels like LaBute is playing a kazoo.

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