Awful truths
Neil LaBute in Albany to discuss harsh tales of human nature

By CASEY SEILER, Entertainment editor
First published: Friday, October 22, 2004

Neil LaBute's characters do the most awful things.

In the writer-director's debut film, 1997's "In the Company of Men," a pair of middle-management men unhappy with their standing in the gender wars set out to seduce and dump a deaf office worker. In 1998's "Your Friends and Neighbors," a set of couples engages in a round of adultery to ease the burden of deadening domesticity. Last year's "The Shape of Things" concerns a young woman's effort to mold her milquetoast boyfriend into a more acceptable mate, a sort of conceptual art project that ends in disaster.

In his 2002 stage play, "The Mercy Seat," an early-morning tryst on 9/11 saves an adulterous businessman from dying in the World Trade Center; he sees it as an opportunity to play dead, and abandon his wife and children.

In LaBute's latest play, slated to open off-Broadway in December, Jeremy Piven plays a man who confronts his perception of beauty after falling in love with an overweight woman; the play's title is "Fat Pig."

While some critics see LaBute's work as excessively stylized portraits of moral rot, his admirers praise him as a worthy heir to David Mamet and Stanley Kubrick, artists whose chilly view of human nature is sculpted in dialogue that's both cruel and precise.

There is more bad behavior in "Seconds of Pleasure," LaBute's first collection of short fiction. The sinners in these 20 pitch-black pieces include a husband whose car stalls out in a strip-club parking lot and a woman who seduces her drunk former stepfather (who doesn't even recognize her). "Even if you don't like his message, LaBute shows himself to be an excellent storyteller," Fort Worth Star Telegram book critic Catherine Mallette wrote earlier this week.

LaBute discusses his work at the University at Albany today, in two events hosted by the New York State Writers Institute. Via e-mail from England, the multi-tasking 41-year-old answered questions just before traveling back to New York:

Q: Have you always written stories in addition to plays and screenwriting?

LaBute: No, this is my first real foray into prose writing. I've written from a very young age, but other than a few poems and stories for English classes, this is the first time that I've ever written descriptive prose. The desire came from the idea of trying a new medium, but also from the form itself -- the short story seemed especially tempting -- to try and distill all these feelings and characters and situations into a few pages.

Q: Did any of the stories in your new collection present themselves as plays or films before you settled on this form?

A: I've certainly moved back and forth between film and theater in the last few years, and have used my material in both mediums. These stories, however, were written directly as short stories. That's not to say that they won't have another life at some point -- maybe a musical! -- but I have no plans at this point.

Q: Do you think of your plays and screenplays as "complete" on the page, before they've been mediated by actors, or the particularities of staging or filming?

A: In some way, yes, since you do hope that your writing is what is conventionally thought of as "literature." I want to believe that my plays or even screenplays can be read independently and enjoyed, but there is always a thought as you create them of that next step, of their coming to a particular kind of life at the next stage -- performance. These stories, though, were meant to be read, yet at the moment, I'm giving public readings of them, bringing them to life in yet another way.

Q: "Seconds of Pleasure" comes out in a period that's already seen several works of fiction from filmmakers, including Alan Parker, Neil Jordan and Ethan Coen. Is this a sea change from the days when directors directed, and left the words to what Jack Warner once called "schmucks with Underwoods"?

A: For me, it simply speaks to the fact that I love to write, and as I work in a world -- film -- where it costs millions of dollars to bring your art form to life, it's nice to have additional outlets in which to bring your ideas to fruition. Writers have always been overlooked by Hollywood -- they're highly useful but easy to underpay. I may still be a schmuck, but at least now I've got a G4 (Macintosh), so I'm moving up!

Q: What led you to create "Lilac Lane," your upcoming Showtime series?

A: Actually, the deal at Showtime dissolved, like so many things do in this industry. I'm still hoping to do television at some point because, again, I love the form. I'd love to follow certain characters for years rather than hours.

Q: I've always thought of you as a deeply religious artist in the Graham Greene sense: Your stories take place in a world where God is present only in His absence -- that is, your characters' frequent rejection of any kind of moral compass. Is this wildly off-base?

A: I appreciate the association with Greene, whether it's earned or not. Funny you should say that -- the pilot episode for my proposed TV series had the title of (Greene's novel) "The Heart of the Matter," and I referenced Greene at several points, including "The Fallen Idol" and "The Third Man" (two Greene stories that were adapted for the screen by the writer and director Carol Reed). I had planned to name each episode after one of his works.

I do think many of my characters are drifting and can't seem to find due north any longer. Morality is certainly interesting to me, I'll say that much. The rest I leave to smart people like yourself to make the connections -- I'm too close to it and don't always see it myself.

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Neil LaBute