Take the 1991 run of Filthy Talk for Troubled Times at a makeshift theater in New York City, where the young writer was then studying at NYU. In the play, five straight men sit in a bar, talking babes and sex, when one launches into a long homophobic screed. His basic message: that HIV-infected gays got what they deserved. Enraged at such sentiments, a man in the audience jumped up and screamed, "Kill the playwright!"
Tension rippled through the theater, packed with Upper Westside yuppies. LaBute, who was on stage as an actor, had the perverse urge to incite things even more. "I had that feeling of wanting to say, 'Let's find him and get him! Let's get our torches and go downstairs -- I think I saw him around here somewhere!' "
Fortunately for LaBute -- who went on to write and direct last year's acidic film In the Company of Men -- the audience failed to act on the angry man's murderous demand. The play continued without incident, its author tingling with excitement.
"I had some theater history behind me, so I thought of the riots in Paris," he says, referring to the clashes between the romantics and neo-classicists in Victor Hugo's day. "It was an exhilarating moment, in a way -- somebody daring, as an audience member, to cross that aesthetic distance.... I tend to seek out plays, as an audience member as well [as a writer], that challenge sensibilities. But I can't remember a play where there was that kind of direct feedback."
Direct feedback is something LaBute, 35, gets a lot of. And much of it isn't exactly warm and fuzzy.
In The Company of Men, for example, prompted outbursts from a number of women angered by its frank depiction of male cruelty, sexism and corporate nastiness. The movie, modeled on David Mamet's plays and on Restoration comedies in which heartless courtesans toy with the common folk, follows two businessmen who woo the same woman -- a deaf secretary -- with the intention of dumping her simultaneously, just for the fun of it. "She'll be reaching for the sleeping pills within a week, and you and me, we'll laugh about this until we're very old men," says Chad, the viler of the movie's male leads. The movie offered neither a happy resolution nor "justice" for Chad's evil deeds.
At the film's Sundance debut, an audience already on edge over the uncomfortable ending threw its first question at the writer/director: Why is the movie's victim a deaf woman? "And I just kinda offhandedly said, 'Because I always thought deaf people were funny,' " recalls LaBute, who, of course, instantly acquired a rep for insensitivity. "For a long time, that [insensitive] label stuck -- the film's still called misogynist."
On the way out of the screening, a woman walked up to Aaron Eckhart, who played the film's charismatically malevolent lead, and said, "I hate you." When he replied that she hated Chad, his character, not him, she spat back: "No, I hate you." Subsequent screenings were no less combative. A woman slugged publicist Steve Beeman after seeing the movie in New York. "I was just standing outside [the theater], just gauging opinions, and she took one look at me and gave me a solid shot to the chest and kept walking," Beeman recounts. At a screening at West L.A.'s Samuel Goldwyn Pavilion, a woman shouted at the Eckhart character on screen: "I feel like cutting your cojones off!"
Though In the Company of Men landed on many critics' best-of-the-year lists, some in the press reacted as violently as did screening audiences. Armond White, writing in the New York Press, dubbed the film "a fallacy of yuppie cool for the Angelika crowd," while Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times called it the psychological equivalent of a snuff film. The movie even sparked an on-air tiff between Siskel and Ebert as to whether men really do this kind of thing to women. But Jack Mathews of Newsday had the most damning judgment: "You walk away from it feeling as if you've witnessed a rape that you'd done nothing to stop."
It's hard to imagine LaBute, a rumpled, chubby guy with a wife and two kids who recently retired from teaching drama at two small Indiana colleges, existing in the world he's created on screen. With his thick glasses, untucked shirts, and R. Crumb-like beard, he comes across more like a good-natured college teaching assistant than a sexual bomb-thrower.
On top of it all, he's a Mormon.
Though LaBute is often asked what he's so angry about, his most distinguishing quality in person is his sense of humor: In conversation he's unguarded, given to rambling, funny anecdotes, and nearly always wryly and gently ironic. The references that come most naturally to him are literary or dramatic; in explaining his fondness for Steven Soderbergh's romantic thriller Out of Sight, for instance, LaBute mentions Poe's theory of the short story.