For playwright, the mystery behind La Jolla Playhouse’s comedy-laced horror story ‘Put Your House in Order’ is part of the thrill


If you come see Ike Holter’s new play “Put Your House in Order,” the playwright would like it very much if you found yourself seriously surprised. Preferably more than once; definitely more than you expected.

In fact, Holter kind of loves the idea that people might arrive for his work’s La Jolla Playhouse world premiere with entirely erroneous ideas of what’s to come.

“I have no problem with people spreading false information about this play,” the Chicago-based writer says with a note of glee, after a reporter ventures what turns out to be an apparently wrongheaded guess about a certain horror trope’s place in the story.

For Holter, the hush-hush aspect is a big part of the fun, and has been since “Put Your House in Order” received its first spare, under-the-radar staging in Chicago — a happening that quickly sold out once word began to spread.

“We did this underground piece that really resonated with audiences,” as Holter says. “It pegged this show as having a secret factor, a cool factor.”

It turns out there are a few things he is willing to say about the play, as it goes into a much more high-profile La Jolla staging directed by Holter’s frequent collaborator, Lili-Anne Brown.

“Without giving away too much away — because I know we’re living in a crazy spoiler culture — I think it’s best just to know that it’s about two people who are in their late 20s or early 30s, so they’re firmly in the millennial bracket,” Holter says.

“This is maybe their third date, maybe their fifth date. But there are a lot of issues with connecting and intimacy. And then that is tested when they’re thrown into this circumstance that is instantly life-altering, and they’re kind of confined to this one location.

“So this is a true-blue, old-school horror setup.”

Surprises, as it happens, are nothing new with Holter, even when he’s not delving into the realm of supernatural suspense and dread.

The playwright, whose credits also include the FX TV network’s recent series “Fosse/Verdon,” made a major splash with his 2012 stage piece “Hit the Wall,” about the 1969 Stonewall riots that helped spark the gay-rights movement.

Later came his seven-part “Rightlynd Plays,” which have been compared in scope and ambition to the late August Wilson’s epic “Pittsburgh Cycle.”

The Rightlynd works played out in a diversity of storytelling styles — one piece even involved superheroes. And that seems to be a trademark of Holter’s restless writing mind.

“All my shows, I try to make them as different as possible,” he says. “Because I just get kind of creeped out when I go somewhere knowing what to expect. Like, ‘This is the writer who does this.’”

Even when he’s working in a genre familiar to audiences, though, “I think the things that make it different are I am a black writer — I have a different take on this than what’s usual.

“But I think if the audience is able to kind of identify the genre, they feel really comfortable. And then they get excited when that genre is switched — when the rug is kind of pulled out from under them.”

Holter’s fascination with horror, and with the joys of going into a story spoiler-free, began early on.

“I would watch TV as a kid and see all these movies by people like Hitchcock,” he recalls. “I didn’t have the hype, I didn’t have the trailers. I would just be watching something and going, ‘Oh cool — this is about a reporter, and I guess she’s staying at this hotel. And then I guess she’s dead!

“I think there are so many people who only know horror as slasher movies, or ‘Nightmare on Elm Street.’ But I grew up watching something like Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved,’ which is horror.

“There are no crazy aliens, but it is literally about ghosts and a forgotten past and our nation’s sin of slavery, which is a horror element.”

So ... are there aliens in “Put Your House in Order”?

Nice try.

“We are so used to going into plays that have been done before, and saying, ‘Oh, what’s the directorial twist, what’s the design twist?,’ says Holter.

“And with something like this, where we refuse to tell people, I think it kind of makes people’s minds go crazy.”

“Put Your House in Order”

When: Previews begin June 2. Opens June 8. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through June 30.

Where: La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Forum, Playhouse/UC San Diego Theatre District, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla.

Tickets: $39 and up ($25 and up for military; other discounts may be available)

Phone: (858) 550-1010