Brett Neveu caught the theater bug while wearing a donkey mask.
Currently a playwright who teaches writing for the screen and stage at Northwestern University, he portrayed the Wise Donkey in the community theater production of “The Patchwork Girl of Oz” decades ago in Newton, Iowa.
The play’s venue was a YMCA, and Neveu was a grade-school student at the time of his acting debut.
“I liked the attention,” Neveu, no longer braying, recalls while sitting at a restaurant booth in The Lucky Platter in Evanston, his hometown since 2012. “The paper ran a photo of the cast. There I was, in my donkey costume. My parents [Kent and Margaret, who goes by “Cookie”] started taking me to shows at the ‘Y’ when I was in the fourth grade, and I remember thinking, This is different. I liked how a show made me feel.
“I went backstage one day and noticed a neighbor of mine resting on a couch. He looked cool.”
I want to know all about Newton, and the 46-year-old Neveu is more than willing to transform himself into Newton’s Welcome Wagon Director, right there in the restaurant — 310 miles away from the county seat of Jasper Country, Iowa.
“Newton is home to Maytag,” Neveu says of the appliance company. “You’ve seen those Maytag commercials, haven’t you? The ones with the [idle] repairman? Well, the dog in them is named Newton. Not everybody notices that, but you do if you’re from Newton. It was a town of 15,000 when I grew up there; still is. It was a blue-collar town in the middle of farmland.”
Neveu’s order of two eggs sunny side up, with corn tortilla and a side of bacon, arrives. Our conversation shifts to his play, “Her America” (formerly “Miss America”), which stars Chicago and Broadway actress Kate Buddeke and made its world premiere at Greenhouse Theater Center in Chicago on Jan. 6. (The production’s run as part of Greenhouse’s Solo Celebration! Series runs through Feb. 12.) Buddeke — an award-winning actress featured in “Eric LaRue”, another play written by Neveu) — is Lori in “Her America”, a mystery/thriller set in a basement in the Midwest. Lori hides there and revisits her past, via relics in a steamer trunk, while chaos reigns upstairs.
“In a way, it’s about Newton, the male-dominated blue-collar town I knew as a kid,” Neveu says. “It’s also about Christianity and ideas about how people should lead their lives. And it’s about control.
“I wrote it for Kate.”
Buddeke had clamored for years for Neveu to come up with a play for her. Whenever the two ran into other, Neveu said, ‘Hi,” and Buddeke said, “Where’s my play?” Tired of the reminders and the poking, Neveu wrote the play and handed it to Buddeke outside of a bar/restaurant on a summer night. A reading of the play was held at A Red Orchid Theatre in Chicago shortly thereafter.
“It was too long,” Neveu says. “I rewrote it. Kate has made it hers [in rehearsals], which is what I wanted her to do. She changes words, and nine times out of 10, she’s totally right. I trust her; I have always trusted her. She is Broadway, hardcore, brilliant. Kate never holds back. What I have grown to expect from her when I work with her is a challenge. She challenges playwrights, directors and herself. One big challenge — that’s Kate, and I mean that in a good way.”
When Neveu was a theater major at the University of Iowa, he accepted challenges from James Finney, a theater professor at the school in Iowa City. The same professor introduced Neveu to the works of the late Harold Printer, an English playwright, screenwriter, director and actor.
“[Finney] was influential, even though he was my professor for only five to six weeks because he had a health issue,” says Neveu, who met his future wife, Kristen, at the college. “He liked to ask me a lot of questions like, ‘Why are you doing that?’ and, ‘What is your thinking behind that?’ My favorite playwright is Pinter because his writing is spare, with a lot of air.
“My first production, ‘The Last Barbeque’, [performed in Las Vegas and later in Chicago] is ‘Pintery’.”
Born in San Francisco before becoming a full-fledged Hawkeye, Neveu spent a year and a half at Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis after graduating from college. He and his wife moved to Chicago, where he did plays in basements and puppet theater in the back of bars before becoming a resident at Chicago Dramatists, a seedbed for emerging playwrights.
“I stopped acting at the age of 22 or 23 and concentrated on writing and storytelling,” says Neveu, a husband for nearly 25 years and the father of a 10-year-old daughter, Lia. “I’m obsessed with storytelling, with the puzzle that is storytelling. My grandfather on my mom’s side was a prospector in Texas who sang. He was a storyteller, too. He died when I was about two years old. Maybe I got the arts gene from him.”
Neveu has been commissioned by The Royal Court Theatre in London, Manhattan Theatre Club, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, The Goodman Theatre and Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe, among others. Some of his awards: the Marquee Award from Chicago Dramatists; the Ofner Prize for New Work; and an After Dark Award for Outstanding Musical (“Old Town”).
Away from the stages, Neveu can be found singing for either a garage rock/punk band or for a country band, a group with undertones of pop and punk.
Combing wares at estate sales is another one of his pastimes.
“My mom and dad are into antiques,” Neveu says. “I recently bought a piano and a lithograph at an estate sale. The lithograph had been owned by a World War II vet, who put it up in his basement. The basement was probably his man cave, with a pool table and bar down there. The lithograph was of a boy fishing, with a girl behind him, and both were looking off into the distance. Kind of creepy. But I felt like I was rescuing it. The print is yellowish, probably because the vet and his buddies smoked when they were near it.”
The playwright pauses.
And then it hits me: Brett Neveu is in his storytelling mode, no longer just a man using a fork to lift his breakfast fare.
His audience of one suddenly feels fortunate to be in the presence of an artist.
Tickets to “Her America” are available at greenhousetheater.org, in person at the box office or by calling (773) 404-7336. Greenhouse Theater Center (Downstairs Mainstage) is located at 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue in Chicago.