By Gary Dretzka, Tribune Staff Writer.

Suddenly freed from the "disgustingly hot, little rooms" in which they had spent the morning conducting interviews, Catherine Keener and Amy Brenneman were behaving like old pals reunited at recess.

Laughing, gossiping and in a decidedly giddy mood, the two stars of Neil LaBute's latest assault on contemporary mores, "Your Friends & Neighbors," could hardly contain themselves as they arrived in the stately dining room of the Four Seasons Hotel. If they had to endure yet one more interview they were going to have some fun doing it.

Keener got the conversation rolling by explaining to Brenneman what led to her getting the part of a ditzy magician's assistant in "Out of Sight." She recalled her meeting with director Steven Soderbergh, which took place in a neighborhood bar and turned into a prolonged drinking session.

She said Soderbergh offered her the role mainly because he had enjoyed her work in "Living in Oblivion," a loopy behind-the-scenes look at the world of low-budget filmmaking.

"I loved that film too," shrieked Brenneman, who may be best known for her portrayal of a cop on "NYPD Blue." "I was watching it on cable the other night with my husband, and we laughed so hard. It was all so real--like 'Waiting for Guffman'--that I had a tough time going into work the next day on my own movie."

Keener, a familiar presence in the kind of independent films spoofed in "Living in Oblivion," admitted she felt slightly out of place in the decidedly more commercial "Out of Sight," and kept asking herself, "What am I doing here?"

Brenneman then asked Keener if her next project--"Being John Malkovich," with John Cusack, Cameron Diaz and Malkovich himself--was going to be anything like the experience described in "Living in Oblivion."

"It's odder than you can imagine," she replied, not sure if she was allowed to reveal details of the storyline.

Actually, "odd" is one of the milder adjectives one could apply to "Your Friends & Neighbors," a grim drama--or twisted comedy, depending on your sense of humor--that demonstrates the hazards of forced intimacy and sexual deceit among a half-dozen urban professionals. As in last year's incendiary "In the Company of Men," LaBute cuts to the marrow of male-female relationships--imagine a "Love, American Style" episode, as written by Edward Albee--without displaying much concern whether or not the audience identifies with specific characters or experiences an emotional payoff.

Keener's acerbic character, Terri, for example, allows herself to be seduced by a predatory art dealer (Nastassja Kinski), while her unctuous husband, Jerry (Ben Stiller), simultaneously is making a play for his best friend's wife. Brenneman's character, Mary, is vulnerable to Jerry's overtures because her husband, Barry (Aaron Eckhart), is unresponsive in bed.

Also lurking in the wings is Carey (Jason Patric), a handsome doctor, who, while administering to women in his practice, seems to hate everything about them. Almost out of boredom, he initiates a truth-telling game that manages to wound everyone.

As uncomfortable a viewing experience as this may seem, it's "Bananas" compared with "In the Company of Men." In that film a couple of unlucky-in-love businessmen seek revenge on all women by playing a cruel sexual hoax on a deaf secretary.

When approached by LaBute for "Your Friends & Neighbors," neither Keener nor Brenneman was quite sure if he was the kind of fellow they wanted as their director.

"At first, when I was watching 'Company of Men,' I was very disconcerted . . . especially with everyone in the audience laughing so much at it," said Keener, a Miami native who began her film career portraying a Rush Street waitress in "About Last Night . . ." "I didn't find it so funny, although, by the end, I had a different perspective on it. I liked it much better the second time I saw it.

"I thought the script to this movie was very funny, and I loved all the female characters."

Brenneman's reaction was slightly different.

"I was sent the script, read it and liked it . . . although, I thought it was pretty mean," she said. "I met with Neil and Jason (who co-produced the film), but didn't click with them immediately, maybe because it was the end of the day and we were all kind of grouchy. Then, my agent said they'd like me to come back and read for them.

"Meanwhile, I went to see 'Company of Men,' and I was blown out of the water . . . especially by Aaron's acting, which was so clean and fearless and so fresh. In the next reading, I just had a great time. I also find Aaron unbelievably endearing in this movie."

Eckhart played one of the evil protagonists in "Company of Men." The northern California native met LaBute while he was attending Brigham Young University, where, as unlikely as it may seem, many of the filmmaker's early plays were produced.

LaBute's skills as a playwright impressed the actors, especially as he was able to clearly lay out what he expected of them and their difficult characters. Unlike what occurs on other Hollywood sets, there was very little tinkering with the characters to make them more sympathetic.

"We wanted to stay true to Neil and his writing, because we respected him so much," Keener said. "What I think is truly unique is that he creates these (unlikable) characters, who are like people we see in other movies, but without the palatable personality traits. The person inside and outside is consistent--like Jason's misogynistic character.

LaBute, Keener adds, "takes this notion of being politically incorrect and stands it on its head, by saying, 'This is reality. What do you think of this guy without all the gloss, the glamor and the cuteness.' "

As actors locked into an image-conscious star system, Brenneman suggests, "You get so in your head about being likable, that sometimes you're tempted to pull back. But, it's not for me to say if my character is likable or not. I'm an actor and I should try to stay true to the story."

The freedom in LaBute's movies, she continues, "comes from just playing that character. . . . People say his movies are voyeuristic, but that's because he takes such a dispassionate view."

One of the things that attracted Keener to "Your Friends & Neighbors" was her character's ability to express rage at her situation, something Hollywood actresses rarely allow themselves to do.

"There's a lot of anger floating around, and it just has to be tapped," she said. "For me, anyway, as a woman in this business, we're not allowed to exhibit that a lot . . . because it's unseemly and it's not very 'hirable.' To get jobs, we have to be diplomatic and compartmentalize our anger.

"We're constantly aware of the reputation we have. It's important to be well-liked."

Brenneman then defined another quality that was essential for the success of an actor in Hollywood. Although the word can't be repeated in a family newspaper, it basically it boils down projecting an image that makes viewers--and, of course, studio executives--want to have sex with that person.

"That's kind of the bottom line," Keener agreed.

Brenneman is a Harvard graduate who toiled with the barnstorming Cornerstone Theater Company and on the New York stage before turning her attention to TV and movies. Since then, she has appeared in such films as "Daylight," "Casper" and "Heat," in which she played Robert DeNiro's much-younger love interest.

Although Brenneman disappeared from the cast of "NYPD Blue" at about the same time as David Caruso, she still gets asked if her character will ever return to the series.

"If Caruso had still been around, they probably would have brought me back, because I was so his girl," she said. "At this point, it would be interesting. A woman at the gym recently sat down next to me and asked, 'Are you still in prison?'

"I said, 'Yup.' "