The Darkroom: Neil LaBute Follows a Cruel Art Collaboration With a New Play

Neil LaBute closed one show last week and opens another on Monday. But what’s particularly noteworthy for the 47-year-old playwright-director is that one of them was in an art gallery.

Mr. LaBute is best known for his acrid and award-winning plays such as Reasons to Be Pretty and Fat Pig and the diabolical 1997 film he wrote and directed, In The Company of Men. His play The Break of Noon, opening Nov. 22 at the MCC Theater, stars David Duchovny as a man who sees God after a violent office shooting. But Mr. LaBute’s other recent project was a significant departure for him: He wrote extended captions for the mysterious, often chilling mutilated images and collages of photographer Gerald Slota. The artists’ two-year collaboration resulted in an often uneasy and provocative survey of the secret lives of families. They titled it “Home.Sweet.Home.” Their 18 artworks, which were shown at Ricco/Maresca Gallery in Chelsea and will be shown in Los Angeles this spring, are “just slightly creepy,” explained Mr. LaBute.

‘I always felt like I was working on pieces that were emotionally violent, that were horror films about psychology.’

At first glance, a merger of the two men and their divergent disciplines–they worked together for months by email before meeting–seems unlikely. But they found they shared a fascination with the often tumultuous, even cruel aspects of relationships. One of the project’s more unsettling photos, Untitled Grandmother, is of the blurred-out face of an old woman appearing behind a slightly open door. Mr. LaBute’s caption for the piece took it in a darker, more intimate direction. “My grandmother walked in on me once when I was playing with myself. On her deathbed, she told me it was the only time she ever enjoyed sex,” it reads. Typewritten and terse, Mr. LaBute’s words act as both description and elaboration of Mr. Slota’s disjointed and chaotic imagery. Another caption begins, “One day I heard a voice coming from the old drainpipe out back. …” And a third caption reads, “The baby stopped crying hours ago. I’m afraid to go upstairs and check it.”

According to Mr. Slota, the interpretation “all depends on the viewer’s presence. We open up the dialogue of what home is supposed to be and then it’s up to the viewer to react.”
Mr. LaBute said there’s much in common between “Home.Sweet.Home” and his body of theater and film work. “In anything I’m working on, there’s probably more actual, physical violence seeping into my work now than there was 10 years ago. I always felt like I was working on pieces that were emotionally violent, that were horror films about psychology–now they are just becoming horror films.”

Horror is the backdrop for The Break of Noon, which charts a tragedy and one man’s reactions to it. Like much of his other work, Mr. LaBute’s latest is a response to the times. “Everybody’s a little more susceptible to huge life changes, whether it’s the stock market dropping out or being shot while they are on vacation in Mumbai,” he said. “It’s a weird time for everybody.”

The author said the art project interested him because he’s in the “seventh-inning stretch” of his career and he wanted to try something different. “There’s a point where you are a decade or more into the work that people know you for. … You’ve got to keep doing fresh things. People can look at those captions and think, ‘I kind of expect something like that from him.’ There’s a dark little thought there or there’s a story of a frightening man or what looks like a placid home and beneath it something more frightening.”

The project came about when Mr. Slota’s agent contacted Mr. LaBute’s and suggested the artists work together. The two frequently debated the language of Mr. LaBute’s quotes over email. “It kept it pure,” Mr. LaBute said. “I think I said to Gerald at one point, ‘It feels like we are two kids sitting in the back of a classroom, writing on a piece of paper, passing it to each other and trying to make the other guy laugh out loud or get in trouble in class.’ Gerald and I were both reaching for a dark place.”

“We were going back and forth and kept pushing it and kept pushing it,” said Mr. Slota.
The captions “give an added layer” to the images, and vice versa, said Mr. LaBute. In the gallery, “the one you were drawn to simply because of the color suddenly you pull back from because of the sentiment, or lack of sentiment. I think it’s nice that it unfolds in a kind of multiple-layered way.”

For Mr. LaBute, the caption format imposed a discipline, and a challenge. “Writing three sentences is tricky, to have a full, realized moment there, a thought that speaks to people in a certain way. It’s a great form to work in.” Doing more with fewer words, Mr. LaBute said, is something that happens often to playwrights later in their careers. “It’s funny how I see a lot of writers that I admire, like Caryl Churchill, whose work started to get more sharp and shorter, and Harold Pinter, who started writing shorter pieces later in life. And I don’t think it was so much that they couldn’t write another long play so much as there was something they admired about the brevity and the power that could come from a single word. “‘Home.Sweet.Home,'” he said, “will always make me cognizant of how important each word is.”

The Darkroom: Neil LaBute Follows a Cruel Art Collaboration With a New Play