NEW YORK — The setting is a funeral parlor, complete with casket, flowers and a soft-focused picture of the deceased. The lone mourner is a widower who, between drags on his endless supply of smokes and bursts of unabashed tears, spends 75 minutes waxing poetic about his perfect, fairy-tale life with his dead wife.

Is this really a Neil LaBute play?

Viewers familiar with the work of the prolific playwright and film director may be perplexed when “Wrecks,” his latest play with Ed Harris, opening Tuesday night at the Public Theater, unfolds, for it is arguably the most romantic work he has produced. LaBute has earned a reputation for his brutal vision of human nature and particularly his dark take on gender relations ever since his first film, 1997’s “In the Company of Men,” which starred Aaron Eckhart as a cruel, ruthless office man bent on manipulating the heart of a deaf female co-worker. Has he gone soft?

“I think people may see it that way, and for me I would say, be careful, that’s just a play as far as I’m concerned,” LaBute says. “It’s more than anything a reaching out to keep yourself honest and doing material that’s somehow new and different from what you’ve done before.”

His fans need not fear, for “Wrecks” has its own shocking revelation toward its finale. “Now, if I don’t have a twist, that’s the twist. It’s very hard to get out of how people perceive me. From the very first film I did, this relatively unfair tag of misogyny got hooked onto it and it’s been a devil to get rid of.”

LaBute may consider the m-word label unjustified, but it’s clear what could have prompted its dispersal. In last spring’s “Some Girl(s),” Eric McCormack was a cad who, under the guise of repentance, tape-recorded ex-girlfriends for an article. In “Fat Pig,” now playing in Chicago, the male lead falls in love with a pretty, charming, intelligent woman who happens to be very overweight, a fact he cannot overlook. “You know, the better the relationship, the crappier the play,” jokes LaBute.

So it comes as no surprise that the writer might want to show his more mellow side (for the record, he does consider himself a romantic). Or that he might confront the label, as he attempted in his recent remake of the 1973 creepy cult flick “The Wicker Man,” in which he cast Nicolas Cage to do battle against a matriarchal society led by Ellen Burstyn. Though he stands by his choice, the film was decimated by critics, a reaction to which LaBute is not generally accustomed.

This story first appeared in the October 9, 2006 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“It’s the first time I’ve united the critics,” he says. “Usually, I split them. This time, they all got in the same boat and said, ‘We’re gonna run him over with this one.’ So it’s been flat out an ass-kicking. There is no other way to talk about it, other than that it was my time to really get taken out behind the barn and beaten.”

Such a thrashing is unlikely for “Wrecks” or, let’s hope, for his next work in progress, a play about a woman who discovers her boyfriend does not find her face attractive.

“It creates a kind of wedge between them that I don’t know if they’ll survive. I guess that’s up to me. Their fates are in my hands, which is a terrible place to probably end up being,” says LaBute, who is considered a cynic by many. “I think I have great hope as a person for them, but I think people are capable of virtually anything, and so they often make the easier choice that ends up hurting people…so I think, yeah, I’m hopeful, but I’m also a realist and so ultimately that alchemy makes me skeptical.”

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