A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

Neil LaBute

   You might not guess it from his plays, but thirty-nine-year old Neil LaBute is a mild-mannered, practicing Mormon and the father of two. Growing up in a blue-collar family in the lumber town of Spokane, Washington, LaBute notes of the teen-agers at his high school, “I wasn’t one of them myself, but I went to school with kids like Darrell and Tim.”  The new play, he notes, “touches on, not necessarily my own life, but the people I grew up around.”

To earn money in this environment, LaBute worked as a grocery clerk, a loader of boxcars, a security guard, an attendant at a mental hospital, and a teacher. His father, with whom he was not on the best of terms, was a truck driver, who, like the father in The Glass Menagerie, ”fell in love with long distances.”   His father’s volatile temper was expressed in words rather than in actions, giving LaBute an indication of “how damage could be done with language.  I would feel the brunt of it less than my brother.  But I was a keen observer and I’m sure that’s peppered the way I often write.”

  When he was a teen-ager, he received a scholarship to Brigham Young University in Utah, where the student body was 97 per cent Mormon. This led him to join the Mormons, finding it “comforting” in its teachings and structure. “I was probably at that young an age looking for something, and it certainly fit what I was looking for.  And it still does.” His wife Lisa, a psychotherapist, is a Mormon, as are their son and daughter.  His directing teacher at Brigham Young, Charles Metten, sees LaBute as “a young Ibsen.”

The writer who has had the greatest influence on LaBute is David Mamet. His admiration for Mamet is great: “beyond fan – stalker perhaps.  Psychological stalker.” While at Brigham Young, he staged an expurgated version of  Mamet’s “Sexual Perversity in Chicago,” not exactly a title or a play, for that matter, that would appeal to Mormons.  But the poster advertising it was so rococo, he recalls, that no one could read it. His dialogue, like Mamet’s, is sharp, short, staccato, repetitious, and filled with expletives.  It also is brilliantly character-revealing

 “The Distance from Here” is his third play to premiere at the Almeida, and the second at their theater at King’s Cross in a transformed bus garage.  In 2001, “The Shape of Things” was a sell-out hit, with Rachel Weisz portraying a manipulative graduate student who exploits an undergraduate (Paul Rudd) and his love for her by coldly transforming him into her degree art project.  In “Bush,” Mormons are depicted as homophobes, which led to his being called before a Church committee.  “I had to go in front of these fifteen guys in suits and I was disfellowshipped – not excommunicated, which is the next stage,” recalls LaBute.

As is Mamet, LaBute is a film writer and director as well.  He had to self-finance his first film, “In the Company of Men,” borrowing $25,000 from friends.  It has become a cult classic, treating two corporate yuppies who wager that they can “hurt somebody.”  They  manipulate a beautiful deaf secretary into falling in love with them separately, after which they both dump her. 

“Your Friends and Neighbors” was his next film, treating six late twenty-somethings, none of whom has any redeeming features.  Their conversation is Mamet-like, as demonstrated by Cary in his telephone conversation.  A phrase that keeps coming up in the play is “Is it me?” Says LaBute, “These men were constantly asking, without any sense of wanting to know the answer, ‘Who’s doing this?’”  The repetition of phrases like “You know” and “Listen” or “I’m with you” LaBute sees as “a false sense of warmth in the way we lead people in sentences.”

  He next directed “Nurse Betty,” and has filmed his play “The Shape of Things.” His latest project is writing the screenplay of A.S. Byatt’s novel “Possession,” which stars Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam as academics who fall in love when researching the secret romance between two Victorian poets.

Having loved writing since he was five, LaBute notes that writing is “my job.  That’s what I do.  It’s also what I love.  I love to do it and so I do it.  I do it because I can, I do it well, and I do it better than I do anything else. . . .Who could’ve imagined that one day I could receive money for making up stories?  Not me.”