The misanthrope speaks

Neil LaBute, our leading spokesperson for the beast within, talks about art, letter bombs and critics in the wake of Sept. 11.

Published November 26, 2001 6:22PM (EST)

Is there another artist who seems less post-9/11 than Neil LaBute, the misanthropic writer-director of stage and screen? As Hollywood directors and studio moguls talk with the White House about reviving wholesome Capra-like tales and doughty "Mrs. Miniver" remakes, will the author of such aggressively mean stories as "In the Company of Men," "Your Friends & Neighbors" and, currently running off-Broadway, his play "The Shape of Things" find himself suddenly out of step with the times?

"Shape of Things," a critical smash when it opened in London at the beginning of the year, has taken it on the chin since opening in New York off-Broadway at the Promenade Theater in October, just weeks after the attacks at the World Trade Center.

It's a vicious little story of a young college student (played by Paul Rudd) who falls for an arty eccentric (Rachel Weisz), who clashes immediately with his seemingly more conventional friends (Frederick Weller and Gretchen Mol). Along the way, the group find new ways of being unspeakably cruel to one another.

In this respect, the play falls in nicely with LaBute's key filmed work. His debut, in 1997, was "In the Company of Men," a beastly look at a couple of beasts. And in "Your Friends and Neighbors," we found the title characters inflicting on each other all manner of inhumanity.

The enjoyment of those films and of "The Shape of Things" is similar to that of a good horror movie; scary not just because of their outrageousness, but their whiff of possibility. We're frightened by the behavior of the characters, and when the show's over, the adrenaline still speeding through our systems, we go giggling off into the autumn night, trying to reassure ourselves that no one we know resembles one of LaBute's monsters.

But it's not as if we need to be reminded of how cruel our fellow man can be right now, and it's hard not to believe the times didn't influence critical reaction to LaBute's "Shape" as a result. Ben Brantley, the New York Times' chief theater critic, called the play's good London reviews "a testament to the English belief in the cultural crudeness of Americans" -- an odd bit of jingoism to stick into a review.

And after New York Post off-Broadway critic Donald Lyons initially hailed the play Oct. 11, calling LaBute the "first dramatist since David Mamet and Sam Shepard -- since Edward Albee, actually -- to mix sympathy and savagery, pathos and power," the Post's Broadway critic, Clive Barnes, revised that view Oct. 24, criticizing the play as "insupportable and insupportably bad -- a nasty, brutish London import." That last slur is amusing -- Barnes is a Brit and he's writing about a play written by an American and starring a largely American cast (Weisz is English).

We asked LaBute what he thought his chances are now, and about the role of the artist in times of cultural trauma.

You finished shooting "Possession," the A.S. Byatt love story, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart, in the spring, but just wrapped up editing and everything recently. Do you finish it any differently because of 9/11?

I've gone through, actually, the whole "Oh gosh, I wish it were ready because what people really need now is a good love story." But I try not to let myself become guided by those voices, because I think it's dangerous to think like that. There's a certain vogue to that, of trying to play the field and gauge just where people are. But I think it's dangerous. You see how reactionary we are when we pull this Schwarzenegger film because it has terrorists in it, and then we stop the Kiefer Sutherland show, and now, when they realize there's a rush of patriotic feelings, there's a push stronger than ever for "24." And during the World Series, on TV, there's suddenly a "24" sign right behind home plate. And I'm sure the Schwarzenegger film will come out bigger than ever.

We're much more quick to try and find which way the wave is breaking and go with it.

But with "The Shape of Things," you had the problem of coming out with a play that, in a different sense, seemed to have a pretty ill-timed debut. Did you consider doing anything differently?

In rehearsals, you had to sort of close yourself off. It was a play that we were remounting; it was done previous to this. And there were occasional jokes in the script that now some of the cast would [notice], like when someone would say something about a letter bomb. But you know, this was the way it was written. And I think it was our responsibility to present this as it was. We shouldn't be catering to the current sensibility.

Did you change anything?

Wasn't changed at all. I didn't change anything.

You actually wrote a piece for the Times about what it was like for a play to come out now, and you seemed to sort of avoid really describing what your play was about.

Well, I wrote a much more volatile piece first time out, but the Times chose not to run it.

Volatile in what way?

It was a much more ... You couldn't call it self-deprecating. I guess you'd have to call it self-loathing. It sprang from a real emotional place that one writes from -- for me, for being someone who has often been deemed a clinician, who writes from a removed space. I wrote about a sort of flash point I had, where I was standing in line, four days later, in Union Station in Chicago, lugging my bags around trying to get on this train and half-hoping there was a first-class line that I could get in to, and sort of realizing, you know, that we're back to basics, everybody was just sort of fighting for space. And I had this moment of thinking, ugh, I really don't like this, it's really inconvenient what happened. It's really sad, of course. But it's rather inconvenient today.

And I didn't like that impulse, and so I gave it several pages of material. And the Times kept bumping it up the ladder, and finally they said, you know, it's probably too early for something like this.

But you must have felt that way about the play: That the tragedy was also a total inconvenience for you, and "The Shape of Things."

Of course. You think, well, that's perfect timing. But you hopefully -- and I guess it's the modern gauge, how quickly you stop yourself from saying anything after you've had the thought.

But in the piece you did write, you whitewashed your description of the play as "the petty concerns of four young college students as they search for love and meaning in their sheltered lives." Awfully whimsical for such a dark story, no?

Yeah, well not for me. I mean, people, I guess they just look to me for whimsy.

I didn't really feel like that piece was meant to promote the [play]. I tried to get the title in there as much as possible. I looked at it all rather wryly. Because, you know, the show, if anything post-9/11 could survive, it would be a play like this. Not at all because of the nature of [the play] but because of the dynamics. It was in a relatively small, 400-seat theater, it's not going to be driven by an influx of tourists to keep it going year after year with people in busloads. I thought it would work on its own reputation in New York, where my previous works have had some level of success.

But the word hasn't been as immediately positive as, say, about your last play ["Bash," starring Calista Flockhart], and some of the reviews, like Brantley's in the Times, have seemed to suffer from a touch of jingoism.

There was a bit of that, yes. And it certainly didn't stop there.

It didn't even occur to us that it wouldn't be well received. It had already been well received [in London]. And yet I think we kind of ran into something that I had heard whispers of and seen in other productions, which is that difficult trans-Atlantic move, where critics say, hold on a second, we'll tell you if something is good. They want to discover something ...

A backlash against the good press?

Sure, a certain amount of backlash to it. And yet I don't look at those reviews and think, Oh, they just don't get it, because I'm quite sure Brantley got it, but just didn't like what he got. I'm pretty generous with reviews; I tend to accept absolutely what somebody says as their opinion. You just have to believe in the material. I mean if you invest in the New York Times as the gospel, then you're going to have to take the rise or fall. But if someone else would say, Never mind, Ben Brantley's an asshole, then I'd have to kind of wipe out the review he gave to "Bash," which was really good. So to me, it's piece by piece, and the boxing gloves come off when you're done.

The play's run is open-ended. How long do you think it will run?

These actors have signed on for four months and it's just open-ended, and I'm sure the producers will gauge it as they do: Is it making money?

With "In the Company of Men" [LaBute's debut 1997 film], you seemed to really strike a chord at a time when the culture was becoming aggressively self-analytical in a frank, provocative, post-politically correct style. But I'm wondering, as an artist now, as times have changed dramatically, how much does that weigh on your creativity? How much does it change your work?

I shudder to say no, that it tends not to. Since [Sept. 11] I've been thinking of possibly doing a film of "The Shape of Things," though certainly people would look at "Possession" as a tamer, more wildly romantic movie by most people's standards and surely mine, as was "Nurse Betty" [LaBute's 2000 film based on a story by John C. Richards], by which tends to be the things that have someone else's hands on them. But the things I have been working on -- I have been working on a musical.

Now that sounds different. That sounds sort of post-9/11.

Well, it is as much from the idea that no one would expect me to do that. But the book that I'm writing for the musical is as severe as anything that I've ever written. Because I thought, you know, I've never seen a musical where people were generally pretty heinous, and they would just burst into song.

I'm working on the book now, and Elvis Costello is hopefully doing the music.

This does not sound like a feel-good project.

I don't feel like I need to get a bit softer here to sell. I've never really thought much in terms of product ...

But, obviously, artists are shaped by their time.

And I'm sure you're right, and that I will shaped by the moment. But in fact the first piece that I thought of since the piece since September and the first story was actually quite cynical, so ...

So you might not be interested in remaking "Mrs. Miniver" yourself. What do you think of these White House talks with Hollywood studio heads about creating products that can somehow help the war effort? If you were asked to help, what would you do?

I would probably suggest carpet-bombing them with "Dawson's Creek." The tide would turn so quickly the Taliban would say, OK, already. You know, just whack them with WB programs. You know, when [Dan] Rather was talking to Letterman, saying, well, basically they're just jealous of us. If they actually saw what we have, maybe they'd say, OK, maybe it's not so bad over here.

I can't imagine what I would make for the home front.

Not even a little Frank Capra in you?

Oh God, yeah, though it tends to be more Billy Wilder.

I guess there might have been a little Billy Wilder in "Nurse Betty."

There certainly was. A very little, unfortunately.

But why is it that your movies are much more optimistic when you use other writers?

It was infused with a sweetness.

Right, [a sweetness] that I think we can safely say is absolutely lacking from, say, "Your Friends and Neighbors."

Well, probably deep inside I have one of those soft gooey centers like, you know, a Tootsie Roll Pop had and I just don't know how many licks it will take to get to, nobody's bothered to lick down that far.

But will it happen? Can you infuse something with a sweetness by yourself?

Yeah, I mean, I'm sure there's a version on the floor with someone getting scalped. But if I just keep rewriting until that just drops away, then maybe so. But right now I like trying to keep that balance that keeps something gray instead of black and white.

By Kerry Lauerman

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