Review: Horror-flick chills hint at larger ills in La Jolla Playhouse’s ambitious ‘Put Your House in Order’


There’s a whole lot of regret coursing through “Put Your House in Order” — starting with (we have to believe) the poor souls who polished off all that Arbor Mist and left the empties strewn on the play’s suburban front lawn.

Fruity-wine hangovers are not half of the horrors encountered in Ike Holter’s humor-laced but decidedly spooky story, whose La Jolla Playhouse world premiere casts its B-movie-style frights against a subtle but sobering backdrop of societal apathy and atrophy.

What unfolds is a piece that brings Holter’s distinctive voice to chiller tropes; while it may not be enough of a true scare-fest to fully satisfy genre fans, and its social commentary can be a little frustratingly opaque, “House” digs at provocative topics around how a community abandons its own bit by bit. And its younger members in particular.

The setup seems simple enough: A couple of young Chicago-area singles, Caroline (Shannon Matesky) and Rolan (Behzad Dabu), are meeting for a date at the smart-looking suburban home of Caroline’s absent parents.

Why that location? Maybe because it affords the pair some privacy. Or maybe because, as Caroline puts it: “You heard the news, right? It’s weird out there.”

Something ominous is clearly happening: Sirens blare in the distance, and there’s word that all businesses have been ordered to close. Luckily, Caroline has a cooler full of water and juice boxes that she got “on sale” before the stores shut.

“It’s not looting — there was a line!,” she tells a bemused Rolan, before launching into an impassioned speech about how people of color become automatic subjects of suspicion.

Director Lili-Anne Brown and her creative team suffuse the show with eerie atmosphere from the very top, when Hitchcock-esque projected credits play across the set to the sound of Victoria Deiorio’s urgent and unnerving music. Amanda Zieve’s lighting also adds to the sense of portent.

As designed by Arnel Sancianco, the house itself is serenely stylish yet imposing, as if it might swallow up Rolan and Caroline (whom David Israel Reynoso has costumed in a T-shirt that name-drops Rosa Parks) as they picnic on the manicured lawn.

Matesky, who’s also a spoken-word artist, handles Holter’s vivid and lyrical and often funny monologues masterfully — her rhythmic delivery is shot through with street poetry and raw passion, though she has her wry side as well.

Picking through the debris she finds littering the lawn in the middle of the night (and finding those Arbor Mist bottles), Caroline concludes: “White people did this.”

She’s right; it turns out to be the work of neighbor Josephine (Linda Libby), whose car has been stolen. The trash is all that was left behind.

Josephine, whom Libby (a top San Diego-based actor) invests with a committed feel of both the motherly and the increasingly malevolent, turns out to be a herald of the sickness that’s devastating the world behind the fence. (To say more might risk spoilers.)

Rolan, portrayed by the talented Dabu with disarming charm and a streetwise cockiness, is rattled by Josephine’s presence; Caroline explains that the woman has been a friend since childhood, although there are suggestions that all was not well at the house.

Both Rolan and Caroline have stories of facing violence and, in her case, racism. And as apocalypse seems to close in, all three voice regrets: Rolan and Libby over family matters, and Caroline over not recognizing signs of trouble earlier.

In fact, it seems telling that Caroline and Rolan are both surprisingly blasé early on as word trickles in about what’s plaguing the outside world. Later, a fiery Caroline laments: “I used to have a line” that she wouldn’t allow society to cross without taking action, although she admits she “moved it 30 times.” One of those lines: “As soon as there are kids in cages.”

Now, the only remaining line might be between existence and extinction. And when creepy, disembodied voices are heard saying, “It’s your community, don’t be afraid of your community” in the show’s tense finale, you can bet she has every reason not to heed them.

‘Put Your House in Order’

When: 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