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Jo Bonney does it the hard way

When men are behaving badly, Jo Bonney is a good woman to have around.

Take, for example, “John Smith.” A few days ago, in the Geffen Playhouse’s rehearsal room, Smith was cursing a blue streak at his ex-wife in a new production of Neil LaBute’s spiritually inquisitive drama “The Break of Noon.” Having survived a tragic office shooting, Smith believes that God has singled him out for a divine mission, like some latter-day suburban St. Paul. But like other born-again souls, Smith suffers occasional relapses to his old self, and as performed by actor Kevin Anderson the character’s bouts of ornery misogyny are frighteningly credible.

Bonney, the play’s director, watching the scene rise to a bruising crescendo between Anderson and Catherine Dent, wore an expression of serene attentiveness. A few minutes earlier during a rehearsal break, she’d offered an even-toned but razor-sharp critique of the playwright and his methods.

“I know so many people who love his [LaBute’s] work and then also a lot of people, particularly women, who are like, ‘I don’t know, the LaBute male is difficult for me to handle,’” said the soft-spoken Australia native, who previously has directed the author’s “Fat Pig” at the Geffen and his “Some Girl(s)” at the MCC Theater in Manhattan.

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“Personally, I love it,” Bonney continued, “because I think it’s like, ‘Good, show us the underbelly.’ Particularly in this play, because you’ve got a man who is so fundamentally flawed. And that’s what Neil is interested in, not watching a man who went through ‘redemption’ and became a ‘good’ man, but a man who struggles to be good.”

Such existential wrestling matches are one reason we go to the theater in the first place, Bonney observed. And her particular skill at wrestling contemporary plays into existence is why the New York-based Bonney has become one of the American theater’s most coveted directors.

Since the early 1980s, when she first began collaborating with her husband, the actor, playwright and monologist Eric Bogosian, Bonney has gained wide recognition for her skill in midwifing challenging, socially engaged plays into being. The list of plays, both new and revivals, includes Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Father Comes Home from the Wars,” Naomi Wallace’s “The Fever Chart,” Bogosian’s “subUrbia,” Danny Hoch’s “Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop,” Lanford Wilson’s “Fifth of July” and the world premiere of Culture Clash’s “American Night” last fall at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Coming up after “Break of Noon,” which opens Wednesday: Lynn Nottage’s “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” an irreverent examination of racial stereotypes through the prism of 1930s Hollywood screwball comedies, at Second Stage in New York.

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Among the foremost of Bonney’s admirers is LaBute, known to cinephiles as the writer-director of “In the Company of Men” (1997) and “Your Friends & Neighbors” (1998) and the director of “Nurse Betty” (2000). The first to admit that “examining the male psyche in extremes” (his words) can be an off-putting experience, LaBute said that he first became familiar with Bonney’s work through her artistic partnership with Bogosian. Since Bogosian also has extensively probed the darkness that lurks in masculine hearts, in “Talk Radio” and other works, LaBute reckoned that Bonney would “be someone who would understand the territory and bring something to it.”

“She has a really good way in the rehearsal room, a kind of quiet command that allows things to happen,” LaBute said. “She has a way of making you think that you figured it out.”

LaBute has substantially rewritten the 90-minute “Break of Noon” since Bonney directed its New York debut last November at the Lucille Lortel Theater, with David Duchovny playing the archetypal Everyman John Smith. (In the Geffen production, Tracee Chimo and John Earl Jelks complete the four-person cast.) The New York staging got an unfavorable notice from New York Times critic Ben Brantley, who wrote that although the play shared a theme with LaBute’s “The Mercy Seat” (2002) and “Some Girl(s)” — “the possibility of divine grace in an irredeemably human world” — “Break of Noon” “feels like standard-issue LaBute, recycled to the point of thread-bareness.”

Asked if LaBute is misunderstood, Bonney laughs.

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“I think yes and no. I think he is, but I think also he asks for it, you know? He’s a button-pusher. And he loves that. I mean, he revels in that. And then also sometimes he just simply likes a good yarn, a difficult character, a good joke. He’s a storyteller, he’s an entertainer.”

Asked how and why she first gravitated to new works, Bonney, whose gentle, empathetic manner veils a restless, incisive intellect, cited the wild and woolly artistic climate of Lower Manhattan in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. In those years, she and Bogosian (the couple married in 1980) were part of a vibrant downtown scene consisting of actors, visual and performance artists, musicians and writers. People made art together, attended their friends’ shows, slept together, sometimes got married.

The daughter of a Qantas airline pilot and a former-journalist mother, Bonney attended art school and was making short films when she met Bogosian and hired him to do a voice-over. But she never previously had been active in the theater, at least not the traditional theater of the “well-made play.” After the couple started working together on Bogosian’s early theatrical monologues, it seemed natural to Bonney to continue focusing on new material.

“I didn’t know anything else,” she said. “I hadn’t been trained, I hadn’t gone to school and done Chekhov or Shakespeare or contemporary theater. So I learned on my feet, working with Eric. And then other people who were watching me work with Eric, because we went into theaters, started saying to me, ‘Oh, we see what you do, that’s great, we have this young writer-actor here,’ let’s say like Danny Hoch.”

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Speaking by phone, her husband stressed that the partnership was mutually beneficial. “I wouldn’t exist as an artist without Jo,” Bogosian said. “I was stumbling around, and I had some ideas. But without Jo helping me focus and collect and take the next step — it was everything.”

The communal, cooperative spirit of that era has stayed with Bonney. The pleasure she takes in the rehearsal process, above all, registers in her customary facial expression: a kind of serenely intense curiosity and engagement.

“It’s totally like being in the sand pit and building sand castles,” she said of a production’s formative stages. “Because also theater disappears in the end, all this work you do. The play remains, clearly, the script remains for everyone else.”

And that, she believes, is exactly how things should be. She approves of the sentiment that James Joyce expressed through Stephen Dedalus in “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” that the artist at some point must dissolve into her or his own creation, “refined out of existence.” That applies to theater directors too, said Bonney, who received a 1998 Obie Award for sustained excellence of direction.

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“I love the idea that the director disappears once the show is onstage, that you can actually like detail every little thing, but your hand should be fairly invisible once it’s moving,” she said. “The director has such a strong hand in terms of the look of it and the transitions and the rhythm. He shapes so much. But when it comes to the actors, I think it’s great if you have the feeling that they’re just acting in the moment. That’s the best sort of acting.”

reed.johnson@latimes.com


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