IT IS something of a coup for Glasgow's Tron theatre to host the European premiere of Neil LaBute's Autobahn. The first time the play was performed, in 2004, it starred Susan Sarandon, Kevin Bacon and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Those are the kind of names LaBute can attract thanks to a parallel career as a Hollywood director.
On the big screen, the 46-year-old former Mormon has worked with Rene Zellweger, Morgan Freeman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Rachel Weisz and Nicolas Cage on films ranging from the award-winning Nurse Betty to the unloved remake of The Wicker Man.
His prolific career in the theatre is no less impressive, despite – or perhaps because of – his reputation as a misanthropic bad boy. In hits such as Fat Pig, which starred TV comics Robert Webb and Joanna Page, he has caused a stir on both sides of the Atlantic. With the exception of an acclaimed production of Bash at the Citizens' in 2003, though, his stage work has been little seen in Scotland.
Autobahn, staged here by new Scottish company Theatre Jezebel, gives us the chance to catch up. It is a series of six short two-handers all set on the front seats of cars, the exchanges ranging from the comic to the sinister. Trapped in a moving vehicle, some characters babble incessantly, others use the power of silence to assert their authority. That's why, when Philip Seymour Hoffman signed up, he insisted on playing the part of a man who says nothing.
"He just sat there driving that car and it was like a masterclass in reactive acting," says LaBute. "Watching him when he removed his glasses, when he glanced over at her, the one moment he chose to touch her… it was beautiful to watch and he didn't say a word."
Taken together, the plays reflect on the atomisation that cars create, particularly in the US, where people spend so much time behind the wheel. "There's such a void in that space," says LaBute. "It can be very intimate – you're inches away from somebody – but it can be so vast. I grew up in a car culture and now spend a lot of time in Los Angeles, where I'm surrounded by people who are primarily alone and driving places that are relatively close together. The quiet of a car when people are at odds with each other, I don't know if there's any quiet that's more damning than that."
LaBute is talking from experience. His late father, a long-distance lorry driver, was a master at using the claustrophobia of a moving vehicle to his own advantage. "I grew up in a family where sometimes that silence was deafening," he says. "My father spent a lot of time on the road and he could change the temperature of a room instantly by however he was feeling. There were times when it was the greatest place to be and times when you felt you were in a coffin."
The short plays are unrelated, but as the tone grows darker, so a theme emerges about the alienation of the modern world. "This is a group of people passing in the night, not literally, but there is that quality," he says. "The woman in the final piece talks about the way so many of us are enclosed in these things, we go past each other and we never notice."
Next on the horizon for LaBute is Reasons To Be Pretty, which will have its UK premiere in London's West End in a production starring Lily Allen, a casting decision that has encouraged speculation that the Mockney singer will be ditching pop for theatre. The play is a coming-of-age drama about four working-class friends and is the last in a trilogy about society's unhealthy obsession with physical appearance – a theme Allen has said is close to her heart.
"She's quite an extraordinary person," says the playwright. "I have complete faith that if she was to go into the theatre, this is the right kind of part for her to start out with. She said there were a lot of her feelings in this play. It's obviously touched a button that makes her think she can take this thing, run with it and infuse a lot of herself into it."
He is unfazed by Allen's celebrity status and, having watched one of his plays die on Broadway for want of a starry cast, is delighted to have a high-profile name associated with the show. Allen also has acting pedigree-by-association, being the sister of Alfie and daughter of Keith. "It's an exciting idea to me," says LaBute. "Being a celebrity can be a bother, but it doesn't necessarily mean they can't do it. The actor may have the talent to do a particular part and, in the end, that's all you worry about. I don't give a shit if she ever does Measure For Measure."
As opposed to the intimacy of Autobahn, the new play kicks off with a volley of all-too-public invective as a young woman lays into her boyfriend. "You know when you see somebody having a fight in public that all bets are off," says LaBute. "In Reasons To Be Pretty there are a couple of public fights and at that point you know that a relationship has very little space to go. In a car, there's still that privacy and people can say the most intimate and sometimes the most inane things, but certain information comes out and there's nowhere to go, you're stuck and you now have to explain yourself. The car is an amazing space and to translate that in a theatre is kind of fun." v
Autobahn, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, Tuesday to Saturdaywww.tron.co.uk
• This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday on 08/11/09