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LaBute and Moliere Occupy Chicago Theater

06/03/2013 10:33 am ET | Updated Aug 03, 2013

It's impossible to know why a Chicago theater season features concentrated attention on certain playwrights. But a pair of Neil LaBute plays and a cluster of Molieres (current and imminent) have given me an idea.

David Prete's fine production of LaBute's Fat Pig, one of the three shows in Steppenwolf's Next Up series, reinforced my response to Profiles' equally strong production of LaBute's In The Company of Men, directed by Alan Wilder: misogyny? What misogyny? In both pieces it's the men who are the targets of the playwright's savagery. Each features a pair of smug, self-entitled jerks who imagine themselves to be friends because they work together and share a distrust of women. Men watches them smash up everything by choosing to romance and then dump a deaf woman; Pig watches them smash up everything when one of them falls in love with a fat woman. I could take issue with LaBute's portrait of women as virtuous victims, but actually the central female characters are funny, self-assured adults, far too good for the overgrown boys with whom they involve themselves. Is the playwright portraying misogyny?--of course. But that's hardly the same as endorsing it, even if his asshole men don't always get the comeuppance we'd wish. The people who've screamed about LaBute's treatment of women have simply failed to recognize a critique when it's put in front of them.

Likewise Moliere: productions of his plays tend to attract commentary about their falsity or pomposity. In Court Theater's production of The Misanthrope these imagined obstacles are surmounted by a series of tricks, including peculiar suspended-period costumes, the unnecessary use of drag and race-conscious casting. All this is apparently director Charles Newell's attempt to make the play hip and relevant; but The Misanthrope hardly needs the help. Every rhymed couplet contributes to its relentless ridicule of falsity and pomposity. The title character's central problem is that he's an honest man in love with a false woman obsessed with status; his subsidiary problem is that he's an honest man dependent on the favors of high-status people who need to be flattered. Each of these is a sharp critique of the world in which Moliere lived, and each remains worth listening to today because people still do choose status over love and still do demean themselves by flattering the powerful.

And because high-status or powerful people still do get away with behavior not tolerated from the rest of us. And here's the common thread between LaBute and Moliere: each is critiquing privilege. Each shows how the desire to gain or maintain it causes people to be false to themselves and one another. Each demonstrates how privilege makes its holders cowardly and weak, desperate to stay "in" at court, or in the corporate suites.

And that's why these are all timely plays. The gap between privilege and its absence gets bigger by the day, and in contemporary discourse it's considered revolutionary (or at least rude) to point that out. But as long as we're talking about the 17th Century, or the go-go 90s, or even 2004, it's safe to speak the truth.