Brett Neveu(Photo: Tony Martin)
Brett Neveu
(Photo: Tony Martin)
When they are awarding the Pulitzer Prize for Drama to Chicago author Brett Neveu 10 or 20 years from now, someone may very well stand up in the audience and interrupt the proceedings. "Hey," the interloper will shout, baffled. "Isn't that they guy who did the dirty puppet shows?"

Indeed. Before his career as a serious, insightful playwright began in earnest--the latest mark of success is the lauded 29th Street Repertory company's production of his play The Last Barbeque--Neveu's artistic energies were largely invested in the Pup At Theater, a no-holds-barred, adults-only ensemble that performed in various Chicago storefronts. His "puppets" were crude in every sense of the term; they had foul mouths, yes, and they were usually just dolls or toys, sometimes just paperback books that had pictures on the cover.

Now the puppets are safely mothballed and Neveu (pronounced NEHV-yoo) is busy crafting his darkly themed, brutally comic plays. In Chicago, he's working on commissions for the estimable Steppenwolf and the offbeat, Off-Loop stalwart Factory Theater. In New York, besides The Last Barbecue, he's got a reading of Eric LaRue coming up at 42nd Street Theater at the end of the month. But he informs me that this is not technically his Gotham debut. "Twelve years ago, a friend of mine and I did a show at some little basement space," he recalls. "It was called The Onion Griller and it was about this boy and his pet onion and an evil chicken. It was crazy, crazy strangeness, is what it was. I had a great time. Then there was a good ten year lapse for me."

The Last Barbecue has no evil chickens. It's a tense family portrait that methodically, at times hilariously, deconstructs the various love/hate relationships within an uncommunicative Midwestern family. The play had its world premiere in Las Vegas in March of 2000 and a subsequent production at Chicago's Aardvark Theater last fall. The 29th Street Rep, co-artistic director David Mogentale tells me, keeps a close eye on the Chicago scene for shows it might import, and Barbecue seemed perfectly in line with the theater's edgy, visceral aesthetic.

Tim Corcoran, 29th Street's other leader and the director of The Last Barbecue, is largely unfamiliar with Neveu's secret past in the gritty underworld of puppetry. What he sees is a playwright who offers insights not limited to any particular region. "We take the message of this play as very much an American, a universal message," Corcoran explains: "It shows how words and language are either misconstrued or not understood. I think that

Peyton Thomas, Elizabeth Elkins, Leo Farley, Barbara Myers,and Moira MacDonald in The Last Barbecue(Photo: G. Alexander)
Peyton Thomas, Elizabeth Elkins, Leo Farley, Barbara Myers,
and Moira MacDonald in The Last Barbecue
(Photo: G. Alexander)
difficulty of communicating is heightened 100 times when it's within families. Is this a Midwestern theme? No. It may have a Midwestern flavor, but the essential theme, I really feel, is universal."

29th Street's next production will be Fool For Love by Sam Shepard, another writer who has had a thought or two about difficult family relationships; but Corcoran feels that Neveu's style of writing is more immediately comparable to that of Harold Pinter. "I think one of the things that's intriguing about the piece is what is said without words, or what is said through natural pauses," Corcoran muses. "The Last Barbecue does have some of that [Pinter] flavor, or maybe it could be compared to a Waiting for Godot or something like that. Neveu has come up with an economy of words and an economy of action in order to present something that's just the opposite of economy: A very large story."

Presumably larger than the one about the chicken, anyway. Neveu himself is both optimistic and curious as to whether or not New Yorkers will embrace Barbeque, but he figures that producing the play outside of the Midwest can only expand its horizons. "I'm always sort of interested in interpretation, especially with some of my earlier plays like that one," he says. "The subtext is sort of wobbly--I'm getting more clear with my subtext these days!" Tim Corcoran is confident that 29th Street audiences will respond well to the show's dark attitude and sly, caustic sense of humor. If not, Neveu can always go back to his puppets.