Neil LaBute: A darker shade of male

The playwright, film-maker - and Mormon - Neil LaBute has turned his merciless gaze to fiction. He talks to Jonathan Romney about sex and latter-day saints
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The Independent Culture

Emblazoned across the screen at the end of The Shape of Things, Neil LaBute's film of his 2001 stage play, was a quotation from the writer Han Suyin: "Moralists have no place in art." Could that possibly be LaBute's own view? Or just the opinion of his conceptual artist character? Or are both being ironic? Asked if he would admit to being a moralist, as critics invariably classify him, he replies, with jovial archness, "I will recline at this time into a sphinx-like posture."

Emblazoned across the screen at the end of The Shape of Things, Neil LaBute's film of his 2001 stage play, was a quotation from the writer Han Suyin: "Moralists have no place in art." Could that possibly be LaBute's own view? Or just the opinion of his conceptual artist character? Or are both being ironic? Asked if he would admit to being a moralist, as critics invariably classify him, he replies, with jovial archness, "I will recline at this time into a sphinx-like posture."

A die-hard anglophile, LaBute tells me he had spotted the actor Ian Richardson a few days earlier at the Cheltenham Festival and had thought of his devious politician, Urquhart, in the TV series House of Cards: "That terrific little aside he had: 'I couldn't possibly comment.'"

As playwright, film-maker and arguably a moralist, LaBute has specialised in a merciless critique of human nature, rooting out the grubbiest, most squalid failings in everyday characters. He made his name as a film-maker with In the Company of Men (1997), about two businessmen who decide to seduce and humiliate a young woman for the sheer sport of it. Your Friends and Neighbors (1998) dissected vanities and betrayals in a pampered middle-class set. In his play The Mercy Seat, a New Yorker cynically uses the World Trade Centre attack as an opportunity to run off with his lover. LaBute's characters are simply not nice people, although they may not realise it.

Yet it is remarkable how often LaBute himself has been taken to be immoral. When In the Company of Men was first screened, some read it as unequivocally misogynistic. One US critic called it "painfully off-putting and evil". One early play featured a character delivering a homophobic rant, causing an audience member to shout, "Kill the playwright!"

Responses have become less extreme, partly because audiences are increasingly familiar with the ironic distance in his work, and partly because LaBute's name is now routinely associated with provocation. Indeed, the most shocking aspect of his recent film work has been his direction of two benign mainstream productions based on other people's scripts: the comedy Nurse Betty and an adaptation of AS Byatt's novel Possession.

But LaBute has hardly lost his jaundiced edge; witness his first collection of short stories, Seconds of Pleasure (Faber & Faber, £10.99). Most of its situations are instantly recognisable as LaButian. A man obsesses morbidly about a blemish on his wife's body, a woman worries to the point of madness about her husband hiding his wedding ring, a woman sleeps with the very last man she ought to. Despite sometimes excruciating self-consciousness, LaBute's characters seem to lack some vital mental chip, the awareness that might just hold them back from the abyss. "A lot of these people," he says, "are fuelled by not knowing how to communicate - they're over-communicating or under-communicating. They try to get their needs met, but they don't know exactly what they're looking for. So they stumble along and try these more outlandish ways of making it happen."

The stories depict little epiphanies of perdition, in which people blow their chances of redemption on the slimmest gratifications. Hence Seconds of Pleasure: such ruination, and in exchange for what? An orgasm, or the relief of making a catty remark. The title came from a song by Elvis Costello, to whom the book is dedicated. LaBute borrowed it because "it reinforced that notion of what people were longing for, and willing to throw everything away for."

Bleak as LaBute's work often is, it can also be extremely playful. Some of the book's agonies of social embarrassment could easily fit into an episode of Larry David's sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm. LaBute, who once aspired to become a TV comedy writer, is much sweeter-natured and more jovial than you might expect. Reading his stories at the ICA last week, he showed a natural talent as a stand-up: flipping off self-deprecating repartee, moving his unkempt, bear-like frame with a precise, droll delicacy, the faintest touch of a hipster Oliver Hardy.

LaBute only took up the short story two years ago, and admits there was a dangerous temptation to write neatly packaged tales with twists, in the vein of O Henry, "or Roald Dahl, whichever coast you're on". Many of the stories hinge on the fact that we are never immediately sure of the narrator's gender - a trick that you could never pull off in a play or a film.

LaBute enjoys exploiting the non-specific qualities of character: what we know of people's identity in his work tends to be an effect of language. "There was a story that David Hare was doing, Plenty with Kate Nelligan. In rehearsal, she said, 'David, why do all your characters sound exactly the same?' And he said, 'It's a little thing called style.' People do really speak the same, often, but it's those tiny rhythms that you pick up."

The power of LaBute's stories lies in the sense that they could be about anyone - indeed, your friends and neighbours. That's why the one that stands out as less effective, even crassly horrific, is "Ravishing", in which the narrator recalls making a snuff movie. LaBute admits it was the one story that he and his publishers hesitated to include. "It was not, 'Is it too horrible?' Nothing's too horrible - crack open any paper. But there's a continuum of behaviour that we're capable of, and that is so outside of what most people can fathom that there's a tendency for the reader to step away and go, 'Well, that's no one I know. This is not even in my street.'" But, LaBute adds, "Every so often, my street surprises you."

Some of LaBute's most vociferous critics have been his fellow members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Given his pugnacious artistic stance, it seems wildly incongruous that LaBute is a long-standing Mormon (not raised in the faith, but converted as an undergraduate at Brigham Young University, Utah). His world view, he readily admits, is at odds with Mormon doctrine. "OK - the Church says you're not supposed to go see R-rated movies, you're making R-rated movies, how do you make those two reconcile? And obviously they don't reconcile all that well."

LaBute's difficult relationship with his faith came to a head after his 1999 three-part stage piece Bash, which showed some Mormon characters as anything but saintly. As a result, LaBute was "disfellowshipped": "Not 'excommunicated'," he explains. "It's kind of a limbo that says you can't take the sacrament and hold a Church office. It's a way station - you either get back into good standing or you're excommunicated." LaBute did feel misunderstood: "Without even seeing the play, they couldn't see the moral sense that was embedded in the show." For now, he chooses to remain in limbo. "I haven't run back to say. 'Please forgive me, let me be a good practising member of the Church.' Nor have I said, 'I think it's better that you let me go.'"

Anyone curious about LaBute's influences will find fertile material in Seconds of Pleasure, which teasingly drops references to his enthusiasms, from stories by Updike and Hawthorne to the films of Eric Rohmer. As a dramatist, LaBute has acknowledged his debt to British playwrights, notably Edward Bond, but his most inescapable influence is David Mamet. He once admitted to being not merely a fan of Mamet, but virtually a "stalker". Touchingly, LaBute confesses that he once spotted Mamet at the Donmar, but didn't dare approach him. "I don't want to be one of those guys who walks over, and who knows, he's probably thinking, 'Who's that big fucker over there?'"

LaBute has two new plays ready for production. This Is How It Goes is bound for the Donmar next year; the other, rehearsing in New York, is titled with characteristic provocation Fat Pig. LaBute describes it as "a study in weakness", of what happens to everyone "where they can't stand up for what they believe in." That much defines LaBute as a moralist - the intent that we should see in his work the worst in ourselves. "I try not to let people off the hook. Hopefully, you recognise those shortcomings and see them as profoundly human. As Arthur Miller says, 'Attention must be paid.'"

Biography: NEIL LABUTE

Born in 1963 in Detroit, Michigan, Neil LaBute attended Brigham Young University, Utah, where he converted to the Mormon Church; he studied theatre. As a graduate student, he attended the University of Kansas and New York University, and got a scholarship to the Royal Court Theatre, London, where he worked with Max Stafford-Clark. His first film In the Company of Men (1997) won the Sundance Film-maker's Trophy and New York Film Critics Circle award for best first film. Other films include Your Friends and Neighbors (1998) and The Shape of Things (2003), both adapted from his plays, and Possession (2002), based on the A S Byatt novel. His plays bash: latterday plays (1999), The Shape of Things (2001) and The Mercy Seat (2002) were all performed at the Almeida, London. This month, Faber publishes a debut collection of stories, Seconds of Pleasure. His wife is a therapist; they have two children.