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With controversy came celebrity, and with that, backlash. While at Brigham Young, LaBute, who grew up in a nondenominational church, had joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which owns the university, to become a Mormon: "I was young and searching for things in my life education, meaning which opened me up to whatever came my way. I was around the religion, its members and its doctrine all the time. I investigated it and ultimately found it was something that I needed in general. But as I became more involved in the specifics, I became less interested in it as a guiding force in my life." Usually relying on his imagination for material, LaBute did lightly dip into his religion in 1999 for Bash: Latterday Plays, in which three people who just happen to be Mormon confess to heinous acts. The performances were well-received, but the church was not amused. "A bit of a falling out" led LaBute to resign his membership last year.
The fuss has died down of late, but that doesn't mean LaBute wants you sitting comfortably. Like a giant, mischievous child poking a dog with a stick, he delights in seeing what he can get away with before the audience turns on him. In his quest, he's worked through a smorgasbord of perversions: infidelity, infanticide, rape, homophobia, racism, sexism, fatism and just plain cruelty. "Audiences are very forgiving, so it's fun for me to see how far I can push before they stop forgiving," he says. "I like to heap it on them, because they come to the theater, they've got dough, they probably live a pretty good life. They need a good whack now and then."
Audiences may come for the abuse, but they stay for the words. LaBute's sharp lines ride along on natural rhythm and casual wit. His pointed dialogue regularly inspires comparisons between the 42-year-old writer and two long-established masters of acerbic, dysfunctional exchanges, Harold Pinter and David Mamet. As a nod to their influence on him, LaBute has dedicated plays to both. It's the acid-tipped everydayness, both devastating and dangerously funny, that translates well, making him as popular in Europe as he is in the U.S. "He's bold, unapologetic and willing to go where others don't dare," says Eckhart. "I read his plays and I laugh and say, 'Neil, you can't say this, and I certainly won't say it myself, because I'll never work again.' Next thing you know, the plays are running in New York and London and they're selling out."
And so while LaBute may take the occasional sidestep into film or short stories (his collection Seconds of Pleasure was published last year), he always comes home to the theater. "Filmmaking is an art form I want to master, but I feel more confident in the theater," he says. "With plays, there's just you and the actors, and rehearsals are the process leading up to a product that we're going to show to an audience. But with film, the first day is meant to be as good as the last day. There's no run-up. And there's so much money involved in movies that there are all these external pressures there's only so much light in the day, you only have the location for so long constantly tapping on your shoulder going, 'This could suck.' Whereas in theater, I've never really felt that kind of pressure."
Especially when he's not directing. British director David Grindley (fresh from directing Kevin Spacey in National Anthems at the Old Vic) is calling the shots for the world premiere of Some Girl(s), which opened May 24 at London's Gielgud Theatre and stars former Friend David Schwimmer as a man who, on the eve of his wedding, is compelled to have a final heart-to-heart with four ex-girlfriends. Acclaimed Venezuelan director Moisés Kaufman is handling This Is How It Goes, (which went down well in New York City and opens at the Donmar Warehouse on May 31 before moving to Bristol and Salford) with British actor Ben Chaplin in the lead as a man who comes back to his small-town home to break up the interracial marriage of his high school crush. "I have thought that, if somebody takes it the wrong way, I could get a brick to the back of the head as I'm leaving the stage door," says Chaplin, who found fame in Hollywood films The Truth About Cats & Dogs and Birthday Girl. "But Neil's an iconoclast and there's not enough of them around. Whether you like him or not, you have to be grateful he's there."
Like him or not, LaBute isn't done exploring the dark side. He's now scouting out locations for his next project, a remake of the 1973 cult horror film The Wicker Man: "This time it's going to be less about religion and paganism and more about surprise! men and women." And he's still writing plays as feverishly as he did in college. There are no plans to slow down or go soft. "That's what you're asking me for, whether you know it or not," he says. "You're not coming to the theater just to see two boring hours of somebody's life. I'm giving you the highlights." Give the audience what it wants: that's LaBute's idea of being a people person.