October 20, 2018

Neil LaBute bears a heavy load

During one of many cringe-worthy moments in Neil LaBute’s play, “Fat Pig,” a cad chastises a co-worker for dating a plus-sized woman named Helen.

“I don’t understand you taking God’s good gifts and pissing on ’em,” the cad, Carter, warns his colleague, Tom.

Tom is handsome and successful, and Helen is simply considered too fat to grace the arm of a corporate player. It doesn’t matter that she is smart and funny — she is a “cow,” a “sow” or “off-the-charts gross,” according to office personnel.

“I’m not saying … that she shouldn’t meet somebody,” Carter adds, “but it should be a fat somebody, or a bald one. Whatever. Like her.”

The scene sports the kind of nasty, brutally honest dialogue audiences have come to expect from LaBute, a playwright and filmmaker who has been both lauded and reviled for his warped morality (some would say, amorality) tales. The auteur — who will turn 44 on March 19 — has been called a misogynist and a feminist, a moralist and a misanthrope, for cruelty fests that dissect gender politics and the slimier aspects of human nature. “I do like to poke my finger in a mess and see what happens,” he says, chuckling, in his West Hollywood office one recent morning.

“Neil is a button pusher, but he does explore the underbelly of us all,” says Jo Bonney, who directed “Fat Pig’s” successful off-Broadway run in 2004 and 2005 and will direct its West Coast premiere at the Geffen Playhouse May 11-June 17.

“You emerge from his plays praising him for the metaphoric slap in the face or simply wishing you knew where he lived, so you can hunt down the bastard and deliver a literal slap of your own,” New York magazine noted in 2004.

In person, the writer is a study in contrasts and contradictions. He is alternately mischievous and irreverent, imploring and earnest — but so charming, even endearing, that he seems likelier to elicit a smile than a slap.

Heavyset and bearded, wearing a red-checked shirt and a mop of black curls, he has the kind of friendly, rumpled appearance that would no doubt raise eyebrows among the image-obsessed characters of “Fat Pig.” Until recently he was a practicing Mormon, but he left the faith after years of conflict with fellow Latter-day Saints.

“My kids were raised in the church, and they hate almost everything I write,” he says, with regret.

Yet a sign in his office unapologetically proclaims the name of his company, Contemptible Entertainment, and the writer-director looks like a proud parent as he surveys the posters from “LaButeville” that cover the walls of the room. With relish, he notes that the largest image — the one closest to his desk — depicts the nastiest character he has ever created: Chad Piercewell from LaBute’s 1997 debut feature film, “In the Company of Men.” In that movie, the fictional Piercewell convinces a colleague to seduce and dump a deaf secretary as a symbolic act of revenge on all women — and for sport.

Other posters advertise LaButian fare such as the sexual musical chairs saga, “Your Friends and Neighbors,” in which a brute excoriates a lover for bleeding on his 300-count cotton sheets, among other not-so-friendly exchanges. “bash: latterday plays,” spotlights murderous Mormons; “Some Girl(s)” follows a soon-to-be-wed commitmentphobe who visits ex-girlfriends to “apologize” (and to seek material for his new book); and “The Mercy Seat” revolves around a man who would have died in the World Trade Center attacks had he not skipped work for adulterous sex.

“I wouldn’t necessarily want all these guys as friends,” LaBute admits. “They’re extremes; I often write in extremes.”

But then again, he hopes he’s not just a “purveyor of [grotesquerie] — that it’s not just, ‘I really like to see people suffer,'” he says.

LaBute prefers to view himself as a chronicler of transgression, and of how ordinary people can tumble into ethically questionable territory. He believes in what the late Holocaust scholar Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil” and says he “ascribes to the effect that banality can have on an audience — that cool, calculated moving forward, one step at a time, until you cross the line. It’s the insidiousness of it, you know; it doesn’t take much to go there.”

As John Lahr once wrote in The New Yorker: LaBute “brings to his observations about human nature something that other contemporary American writers have not articulated with such single-minded authority: a sense of sin.”

To understand LaBute’s preoccupation with sin — and casual brutality — one has only to ask him about his childhood in a town outside Spokane, Wash. The model for many of his male “beasts,” he says, was in part his father, Richard, a volatile truck driver who infused the house with a sense of menace. The elder LaBute was also handsome, charming and seductive. But when LaBute’s father returned home, the writer recalls, “You never knew what would set him off, and it was that unpredictability that created fear.”

Occasionally the trucker’s tantrums escalated into punching or slapping LaBute and his mother.

“My father may well have been bipolar, and helped by medication, but he wasn’t someone who would have ever sought that kind of help,” LaBute says. “He was always a person who blamed the other party…. I know my father had a rough upbringing, but there’s always an excuse, unfortunately.”

Because LaBute’s home was “a tough house and a small house to grow up in,” he sought safe havens outside the family circle. He escaped into his school’s theater department — and into services and Bible study classes he attended, alone, at a nondenominational church walking distance from his house. “[The atmosphere] gave me a sense of quiet, of peace and especially of community — everything I had been missing growing up,” he says.

LaBute chose to attend the Mormon Brigham Young University, in Provo, Utah, because, “It seemed as far away as I could get from my father, not just geographically, but spiritually — a place he wouldn’t follow.”