Profiles Theater gets playwright's 'Forest' before New York run

CHICAGO — Profiles Theater, the epitome of Chicago’s storefront legit scene, might at first seem a surprising choice for the U.S. premiere of a high-profile American scribe like Neil LaBute.

The playwright’s “In the Forest, Dark and Deep” inaugurated Profiles’ new, larger second stage April 23, after the play had been produced in London’s West End but before a New York run. But given the troupe’s history with LaBute and reputation for purposefully provocative work in its ultra-intimate 60-seat space, the choice of venue may not have been such a surprise at that.

The company, founded in 1988, has been on an upswing, prodding its leaders to expand into a new, second space. The move comes after the experience of producing multiple plays at a time: Due to ongoing demand, the org moved its world premiere of Ellen Fairey’s “Graceland” (which went on to be produced by Lincoln Center), transferred the revival of Tracy Letts’ “Killer Joe” to a commercial house, and earlier this year produced another big local hit, the new play “Assisted Living” by Deirdre O’Connor, at a separate location from the start.

The company’s artistic directors, Joe Jahraus and Darrell W. Cox, have been developing a relationship with LaBute since 2006, when they produced his play “Autobahn.” That was quickly followed by the playwright’s “Fat Pig,” which was extended extensively. LaBute saw that production and was impressed. He also liked that during rehearsals, they’d call with questions, even requesting to make changes to established scenes.

“When they have questions, they ask them,” LaBute says. “When they have opinions, they state them. That said, it’s never defensive or self-serving; it’s really about the work and striving to make it better, and that’s an atmosphere that I thrive in.”

Profiles soon dedicated its entire 2007-08 season to LaBute’s work, and subsequently reserved a spot each year for one of his plays. “In the Forest” will be the ninth LaBute play it has done, and the theater is already scheduled a 10th. “His writing suits us,” Jahraus says. “He doesn’t pull punches.”

LaBute does seem a natural fit for a theater that has nimbly managed to build a reputation for being genuinely edgy — for taking a step into the uncomfortable.

“A lot of agents are aware of us now,” says Cox, who plays one of the leads in “In the Forest.” “They’ll say something like, ‘This has been too dark for other theaters, but I thought it would work for you guys.’?”

Adds Jahraus, “We’re interested in the things people don’t like to think about.”

In addition to opening a 99-seat second space while continuing to operate its smaller one, the theater also will officially become an Equity house and increase its season from four plays to five. It’s a big risk for a small theater.

“We couldn’t keep doing the quality we want to do without changing,” Cox says. “We’re pursuing the best plays.”

For LaBute, seeing Profiles stage the American premiere of his play felt like a natural choice.

“They have earned the right to take on a play first rather than a year or so after it had been performed in New York,” he says. “They are a pretty fearless little group.”

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