Neil Labute is trying to explain what he enjoys about being a playwright. Over a milky tea in a French café in south London, he talks about the thrill of tinkering with ever-evolving scripts, the comfort he gets from working with actors he respects, and the rush of hearing a laugh, or a gasp, from an audience lost in the drama he's created. In short, he says, "I'm a people person." Then he laughs. Because he knows how absurd it is for him, the bad boy of American theater, to speak in sunny, New Age banalities. And he knows that anyone familiar with his work probably wouldn't believe him, anyway.
After all, he's the guy who wrote The Distance From Here, in which a teenager drowns a baby in a penguin pool; The Shape of Things, in which a student manipulates her boyfriend into changing his appearance and ditching his friends for a college art project; and The Mercy Seat, in which a man uses the 9/11 attacks as a cover to disappear with his mistress. LaBute refuses to judge any of his characters. He likes nothing better than to test how fine the line between good and bad can be and look at how suddenly someone anyone can trip over it. His two latest plays, Some Girl(s) and This Is How It Goes, both about the lies men and women tell each other and both running in London, come with his signature caveats: trust no one, and there are no happy endings. "A good relationship equals a sh__ty story," LaBute says. "Drama's fundamental building block is conflict. You have to pitch people at one another. So my job is to look for ways to ruin a perfectly good day for people."
This cheerful observation issues from a bear of a man with tortoiseshell glasses and a mass of curly hair. His voice is soft, but LaBute has been honing his hard edge since the early '80s, when he enrolled in a theater studies course at Utah's Brigham Young University. "I don't know that I ever saw him sleep," says Aaron Eckhart, an old college buddy and near permanent fixture in LaBute's work. "He was inexhaustible. Nobody knows this, but Neil's actually a pretty darn good actor. So if he wasn't writing, we were rehearsing; and if we weren't rehearsing, we were performing."
But it wasn't until over a decade later that LaBute took his first wicked steps toward becoming one of America's most celebrated and prolific party poopers. With the help of a few friends two of whom handed over their insurance settlements from a car accident LaBute raised $25,000 to bring his play In the Company of Men to the big screen. In 1997, the film, which has two guys (one of them Eckhart) seduce and then dump a deaf co-worker just for the sport of it, won him the Filmmakers Trophy at Sundance. LaBute was hailed as a caustic king, and lambasted as a woman-hater. "It's all just name calling," he says. "The premise that these guys work on let's hurt a woman O.K., that was misogynistic. But to say these guys were just misogynistic was very limiting. Don't stop there. At least give me misanthropic." He graduated to misanthropy one year later, with his film Your Friends & Neighbors (also based on one of his plays), in which five friends cheat on each other with each other.