Neil LaBute: 'I put heavy things on my audiences. I love it'

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He's famous for his brutal characters and shocking plotlines. What personal experiences inform Neil LaBute's dark material? On the eve of a new play, he talks about family, critics and telling racist jokes

Neil LaBute has killed at least two children. He smothered one; another he drowned in the penguin pool at the zoo. He's implicated in a fatal homophobic beating, a gang rape and a number of borderline criminal deceptions. He even tortured and immolated Nicolas Cage – though perhaps we'll forgive him that final misdemeanour. The crimes are all fictional, of course, buried like bodies in the prolific playwright's work. But LaBute's plays have also earnt him accusations of some non-fictional sins.

His early critics, for example, discerned misogyny in his writing, despite most of his protagonists being shabby and weak-willed males: "Let's hurt somebody," suggested the unsavoury anti-hero of his debut film, In the Company of Men, before seducing a deaf girl, then dumping her mercilessly for sport. Bash, LaBute's 1999 triptych of modern Greek tragedies, got him a severe ticking off from the Mormon Church, to which he and the play's murderous characters belonged. He has since resigned his membership.

In his 2002 play, The Mercy Seat, a World Trade Centre worker contemplated running away with his mistress in the shadow of the 9/11 attacks, safe in the knowledge that his family would believe him dead. "Some people said it came out too soon," says LaBute now. "They said I was making money from people's deaths. And I was like, 'Yes, I am'. Did they want me to wait three years? If I could have written the play six months earlier, I would have."

And yet, in spite of his talent for causing offence, LaBute's work is performed more than that of almost any other contemporary playwright. Almost as frequently, in fact, as that of his idols, Harold Pinter and David Mamet. (He has dedicated plays to both.) It's far from unusual for two of his shows to be running in the same city simultaneously. As he rehearses in London for his latest, In a Forest, Dark and Deep, across the West End, Tom Attenborough – grandson of Sir Richard – has been directing his 2001 play The Shape of Things. In December, The Break of Noon ended its run off-Broadway. In April, a production of Fat Pig opens on Broadway.

LaBute's scripts are straightforward to stage, with small casts of youngish characters that make them suitable for student groups and struggling drama-school graduates. The Edinburgh Fringe always features a handful of his titles. But to sustain such popularity, people must also have connected with his subject-matter. Somehow, the cruel secrets at the heart of each of his plays resonate psychically with their audiences. As unpleasant as they get, they remain chillingly plausible.

With a certain crushing inevitability, LaBute in person is polite, friendly – and, for a serial killer, somewhat squeamish. "When I know something is real, I get much edgier about it," he explains. "I can watch the baby being stoned in its pram in Edward Bond's Saved, and find it extremely shocking. But it doesn't take my breath away like when I watched a documentary about kids being killed. I don't want to see that. I don't even want to see documentaries about animal testing."

In the programme notes for the first London production of Fat Pig, LaBute described his lifelong problems with weight, yet he seems a healthy size these days: tall but unassuming – a Panda bear, not a Grizzly – sipping a Diet Coke in a café close to Waterloo and the rehearsal room where he's putting the final touches to In a Forest, Dark and Deep.

The play, which opens next week, is a story of sibling rivalry. Bobby, played by Matthew Fox, has come to help his sister Betty (Olivia Williams) clear out her cottage in the forest on – naturally – a dark and stormy night. As they dust off her old possessions, they stumble upon some unpleasant memories, too. Like each of his plays, it oscillates between black comedy and psychological thriller, and is doubtless guaranteed to contain at least one nasty twist.

In 2005, soon after he finished Friends, David Schwimmer appeared on the London stage for the first time in LaBute's Some Girl(s). As a commitment-phobe meeting up with his bitter ex-girlfriends one-by-one in the weeks before his wedding day, Schwimmer toyed with the neurotic "Ross" persona that had made him famous. The same subversive instincts informed the casting of Fox, best known as the noble Dr Jack Shephard in the hit American TV series, Lost. "I go into each piece of work like it's a clean sheet of paper," Fox assures me in a phonecall. "So if people are remotely expecting to walk in here and see any version of Jack Shephard, then they've got another thing coming."

LaBute may be a fan of Pinter, Mamet and Bond, but that didn't stop him being sucked in by the more lowbrow Lost with the rest of us. "I watched it all," he recalls, grimly. "I teetered on the brink of switching off when the island disappeared. I said 'You're testing me!'." The show's writers, he suspects, were forced to throw out the sci-fi fantasy rulebook in light of its continued success. "I appreciate discipline," he says. "I like to have rules. I'm hard on myself when I write. I'll say, 'It's going to be 90 minutes with two people, and this is the reason they're here. And it's not going to all be a dream in the end'."

Like saintly Dr Jack, people often attempt to plumb the outwardly calm LaBute's hidden depths. What mysterious trauma, bothersome interviewers wonder, could have inspired that troubled imagination? There is a "personal life" section on his Wikipedia page, but it's curiously blank. Still, there's enough elsewhere in the public domain to piece together patches of his early life. He was born in Detroit in 1963. His parents, a truck driver and a housewife, relocated the family to Spokane, Washington, soon afterward. Here, in a culturally barren corner of the Pacific Northwest, is where LaBute grew up.

He never got on with his temperamental father, whose work kept him away from home for long stretches, and from whom he was estranged for some years before the older man's death. "He worked hard at not being close. So there's one side of me that thinks he got what he deserved, and another side that wishes we could have been closer. There are things we probably should have tried to resolve," he admits. "I've written a lot about missing fathers."

LaBute's only sibling, an older brother, is now a farmer. But, as a teenager, the more academic Neil won a scholarship to Brigham Young, a private university in Utah run by the Mormons. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – which also counts among its adherents Mitt Romney, Brandon Flowers and the Osmonds – opposes abortion, homosexuality and sex before marriage. Not surprisingly, when LaBute started producing uncompromising plays as a student, they scandalised the campus. On one occasion, college authorities reportedly locked the theatre to prevent a performance.

Ferociously motivated, LaBute took jobs in a psychiatric hospital and as a security guard so that he could write through the night. Among his classmates was the actor Aaron Eckhart, later one of his most stalwart professional collaborators, and the man who first uttered that definitive LaBute line, "Let's hurt somebody". "He was inexhaustible," Eckhart has said of his friend. "If he wasn't writing, we were rehearsing; and if we weren't rehearsing, we were performing."

It was also at Brigham Young that LaBute met his wife, Lisa, and converted to Mormonism himself. The couple had two children – both now adults – and settled down in a Chicago suburb, far from the theatrical and cinematic capitals of New York and Los Angeles. Lisa, the more devout of the two, found her husband's vocation difficult to deal with. "I'm offended by his work," she told a Chicago newspaper in 2003. "It's been a real problem in our marriage, to be honest... People say, 'He's a genius! It's so great! It's so deliciously dark!'. And my stomach is just churning."

When I bring up the subject of his family, however, LaBute says he'd rather not discuss it. "I always prefer to just talk about the plays as they stand," he explains politely. "But of course people always want to hear about my personal life. It's weird to me, because nobody tries to compare Star Wars to what was it like for George Lucas growing up. Because my plays are about relationships, people want to claw through them and ask, 'What about your religious background?'."

Surely he understands the flaws in that comparison. George Lucas, after all, writes films about wise little green aliens in a galaxy far, far away. LaBute writes films about our world: racism, erectile dysfunction, ritual murder. But he maintains that his background has little bearing on the content of his writing. "Your life can't help but seep into your work," he agrees, "but I never want to be in that Woody Allen position of writing a couple of stories about an old man and a young girl and saying, 'It's not me!'. Then having the Polaroids turn up."

Don't you ever share your characters' urges, I ask – not to drown small children, but to tell a racist joke in mixed company, say? "Those impulses must be there somewhere. To be able to create those characters, I have to be able to inhabit them. What interests me is to try and understand that person; it's not the racist joke that interests me so much as how they justify it. That fascinates me: what people do to live with themselves and what they've done."

Nonetheless, the compulsion to continue writing into the darkness must be strong. In an interview with the New York Times two years ago, LaBute reluctantly admitted that he and his wife had broken up, even suggesting their split had something to do with the unpalatable content of his work. Many writers soften the edges of their vision as they grow older. He will be 48 in March; doesn't he want to write some happy endings in his dotage?

"I just try to be as true to each piece as I go. My play reasons to be pretty [2008] did well and got four Tony awards. Lily Allen was talking about being in a London production. But the critics assigned to it a maturity in the work, and therefore in me; they said I'd mellowed, and that I was going to start creating more kind plays from now on. When my next protagonist turned out to be an asshole again, they went, 'Oh, he's regressed'."

Talk turns to his future projects, of which the most ambitious is a large-cast adaptation of Dracula that he hopes to stage in London or New York next year. Later, he e-mails to complete our conversation. Plays are his bread and butter, but he's also published short stories – and directed three Hollywood films in the past five years, including a remake of The Wicker Man (in which Nicolas Cage met his unfortunate end).

"I continue to write short stories and find homes for them when I can," he writes. "I'm developing various films, [from] a 1970s-set crime drama that I've written, to an adaptation of my book Seconds of Pleasure, to a proper Agatha Christie mystery. I also have a play or two still up my sleeve, including a hope to see reasons to be pretty (the end of a loose trilogy of plays that began with The Shape of Things) come home to the Almeida Theatre where it all began 10 years ago."

LaBute loves to work, and he loves to talk about his work. But for a man so reluctant to reveal anything of himself (to a journalist! Who'd have thought it?), his preferred plot motivation is a touch ironic. His characters, he says, are all driven by the urge to confess. "Police will tell you that smart murderers, dumb murderers, kind murderers, or people without seemingly any shred of empathy within their body, still have a desire, a need to confess. It's a fascinating thing, and to say to an audience: 'I will tell you something that I won't even tell my partner; the person sitting next to me will never know that I did this'? That is such a heavy thing to put on them. I love it."

'In a Forest, Dark and Deep' is at the Vaudeville Theatre, London WC2 (0844 412 4663), from Thursday to 4 June

The uncompromising works of Neil LaBute

In the Company of Men 1992

An unsettling look at masculinity and misogyny that prompted allegations that LaBute himself was a woman-hater. Two unpleasant thirtysomething businessmen take revenge for their failed relationships by scheming to date and dump a vulnerable deaf typist, just for their own amusement. LaBute also directed the movie version in 1997.

Bash

1999

A trio of one-act plays, Bash sees three characters reveal dark and disturbing actions: in A Gaggle of Saints, a college kid talks about going gay-bashing; in Medea Redux, a woman speaks of her seduction, impregnation and abandonment by her high-school teacher at 13, before confessing to later killing the child; in Iphigenia in Orem, a father relates how he suffocated his own baby daughter. All three confessors explicitly came from Mormon backgrounds – a fact that got LaBute 'disfellowshipped' (like excommunicated, but not quite) from the church.

The Shape of Things

2001

Proof that LaBute's fictional women can be just as manipulative, cold, and callous as his men. A beautiful woman gives a dweeby museum security guard a sexy makeover. He falls for her, but she later reveals it was all just an aesthetic game, that she has 'sculpted' him merely as an art project. It was also made into a film, in 2003, starring Paul Rudd and Rachel Weisz.

Fat Pig

2004

A young office worker develops a romantic relationship with an obese librarian, but struggles with the feelings of shame he experiences, knowing he is falling in love with a fat girl his friends would never approve of. Its 2008 London run starred Robert Webb and later Kelly Brook; the play gets its first ever Broadway production this spring, with a cast that includes Julia Stiles and Dane Cook.

Land of the Dead/Helter Skelter

2008

Two companion plays, with nasty stings in their respective tails — the former is LaBute's response to 9/11, as seen through a character's capitulation to her partner's insistence that she has an abortion; the latter is another riff on the Medea myth featuring vengeful infanticide. The Anglophile's two short'n'sharp plays had their premiere in the UK, at the Bush Theatre in west London.

BY HOLLY WILLIAMS

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