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When He Was Cruel

Neil LaBute tries to be nice but comes off very savage

At least LaBute has this much going for him: He doesn't make anything you react to with a limp whatever. Half the audience found In the Company of Menmisogynistic, half thought it feminist; half the audience thought Your Friends & Neighborshysterical, half found it repugnant. And this is a man whose very first play--1991's Filthy Talk for Troubled Times, in which a straight man launches into a disturbing homophobic tirade--infuriated an audience member who felt compelled to stand up and shout, "Kill the playwright!" LaBute, then studying at New York University, was in attendance.

"That was exciting," LaBute recalls. "And equal parts frightening, because I was in the audience, but exciting, as well, because we're so trained to not respond in anything but appropriate ways--to applaud, you know, that kind of thing, but not to talk back to live actors...I often try to include the audience in a kind of silent-partner way of not just saying, 'Here are some horrible things I'm going to talk about.' The audience either takes it or, in this case, the guy goes, 'You know what? I need to let you know I don't take that, I'm not like you.' I was slightly thrilled, which says very little about my personal character and a lot about me as a writer, because I thought it was interesting...But I have no interest in stopping provoking an audience."

But merely being confrontational is not the mark of a great artist. Nor is merely using the excuse, "I am asking questions, not providing answers," which LaBute often says when trying to shield himself from explaining too much the intentions behind his work. Journalists who profile LaBute always comment on how ironic that so seemingly sweet a fellow could concoct such merciless people and cruel situations, but it's precisely that kindly exterior that allows him to get away with being such a bastard in his work: You gotta be kind to be cruel, in other words. This is, after all, a man who wrote a September 11 play, The Mercy Seat, in which a man contemplates pretending he died in the World Trade Center so he can run away with his mistress and abandon his wife and kids--hardly the stuff of heroism, so often (toooften, maybe) the theme of art made in the shadow of the terrorist attacks.

The genesis of The Mercy Seat, which will likely become a made-for-Showtime production with its original stars Sigourney Weaver and Liev Schreiber, may explain a great deal about LaBute. He was in Chicago when the planes slammed into the towers, trying to get back to Manhattan for rehearsals for The Shape of Things. What should have been a short plane trip became a 21-hour marathon.

"And there was an ugly little moment where I was in the train station in Chicago," LaBute begins, his voice tinged with rare shades of shame. "I've got my Amtrak ticket and there's a huge line, and I thought, 'Wow, I know it's terrible, but this is really inconvenient.' And it quickly goes out of your head. But instead of burying it down, I published it."

LaBute wants to be the man who says what others will not, in polite company or otherwise. To him, the Great Truth About Humanity is revealed not in our deceptions but in the things we simply choose not to say altogether. His entire artistic life is defined, it seems, by something spoken by Howard in In the Company of Men: "I get so used to saying what people want to hear I forget sometimes they might just want the truth."

At the end of The Shape of Things, Adam tells would-be artist Evelyn that there is a price to pay for her actions; she can't hide behind the excuse that her malevolent deeds were done purely in the name of art. "If I totally miss the point here, and somehow puking up your own little shitty neuroses all over people's laps isart," he tells her, "then you oughta at least realize there's a price to it all. Somebody always pays for people like you, and if you don't get that, if you can't see at least thatmuch, then you're about two inches away from using babies to make lamp shades and calling it art." You wonder how often someone has said the very same thing to Neil LaBute.

"None, actually," he says. "Or I would've used it much earlier, because I constantly poach from what I hear--good jokes, the sorrows of people's lives. I'm listening with one ear and thinking, 'That's really horrible,' and with the other side I'm thinking, 'How long has to go by before I can change the sexes of those people and use it to make money off of it?' So no one actually said that, but I'm sure they've implied it with a withering look of, 'You're going to pay someday for being mean to those characters.' But really, in the end you have to think you're being mean to characters. They don't exist, you know? I have a pretty healthy view of, 'This is fiction, this is life.' I'm a very kind of average, well-adjusted person in terms of life. But onstage and in film, I like to have things be a little more savage."

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