Land of the Dead and Helter Skelter

by Neil LaBute

Land of the Dead and Helter Skelter had 1 performance about 9 years ago (on the 13th of May 2009) at The Leatherhead Theatre

Neil LaBute is regarded as one of the best new playwrights and screenwriters to emerge in the past decade. He has received much acclaim in the West End including recently for "Fat Pig", but first came to my attention through ‘The Shape of Things’ which was also a film starring Rachel Weisz and Paul Rudd. He has received high praise for his edgy and unsettling portrayals of human relationships. Many of his plays deal with the emotional manipulation, humiliation and destruction of people, often involving a surprising amount of comedy along the way, and they can (as with these two plays) have a strong, sometimes shocking, twist in the tail.

These two ‘companion’ pieces (LaBute wrote them at different times but latterly produced and published them together) chart the trajectories of two regular couples in contemporary America, and their extreme responses to sudden changes in their lives. They have in common the theme of pregnancy and, being in a broadly similar form with a simple set and an unnamed couple with relationship issues, the two very short pieces work well together for a festival entry. Both plays are set in New York and require American accents, though it is not important that the accents are local.

1) Land of the Dead (cast: 1 Man and 1 Woman; both mid-20s-mid 30s) A couple part - he goes to the office, she visits a clinic. As events unfold, it becomes clear that this is no ordinary day. She is, very apprehensively, having an abortion. He appears casually uninvolved, even uncaring: preoccupied by shaking off his hangover, impressing the boss, and cracking (rather funny) jokes. After just 8 pages we discover he dies that day in the World Trade Centre.
This is not the only surprise revelation in this micro-play, but I would be grateful if people could try to preserve the ‘secret’ (that this play deals with 9/11) for the sake of what I hope will be a minor coup de theatre. The play is essentially two intertwined monologues, the Man and the Woman speak only, and directly, to the audience throughout and there will be little if any set. It is a rollercoaster of emotions and a case study in crisp dialogue where every word and pause counts in bringing the audience into this funny and deeply poignant tale of loss.

2) Helter Skelter (cast: 1 Man and 1 Woman; both 30 – 40) “We get used to it always happening to someone else”. This play is a study of the irrational (?) behaviour we may all be capable of - what would you do? In a chic restaurant in New York City, a man and his heavily pregnant wife, who already have other children, meet to take a break from Christmas shopping. He doesn't know that she has already seen him today – in the arms of her sister. The play is carefully constructed so that despite the surface banter and normality, we know she suspects him of something (a complex and amusing bit of business with him trying to avoid giving her his mobile phone). Once we know his secret, LaBute is careful to ensure the man behaves naturally – realistically contrite and keen to avoid ‘a scene’ in a pubic restaurant. The play would be entertaining if it stopped there, but the last few pages are, according to the writer, ‘a primal scream about injustice and children and lost love, and in the hands of the right actors, makes my hair stand on end’.

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Man (in Land of the Dead) - Chris Knights

Age mid 20s - mid 30s. Affable, ‘normal’, enjoys food, sport and telling a story. Appears mildly misogynistic, uncaring about the abortion and makes light of it for the sake of a joke – lots of black humour. Later revealed to have a more caring side.

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Woman (in Land of the Dead) - Nancy Lund

Aged mid 20s - mid 30s As the Man, she appears ‘normal’ – although her circumstances have made her anxious and somewhat obsessive. She is frustrated by his attitude and feels lonely and even unloved. But she loves him. Particularly touching part where she reacts to the phone message he has left her.

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Man (in Helter Skelter) - Nick Lund

Aged 30 - 40 A normal man having a normal affair and getting caught. Everything about this performance has to be ‘reasonable’, strangely unremarkable. He is no great actor - his guilt shows - he seems almost relieved to confess and throw himself upon her mercy. All this normality of course requires careful and very mature handling to maintain interest and engender sympathy. While we disapprove of his actions and wish him more penitent, at the end we should feel his utter helplessness

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Woman (in Helter Skelter) - Nancy Lund

Age 30 - 40 A powerful and demanding opportunity to play a woman completely in control of her situation, her reactions, and her and her child’s bodies. But although she starts the piece knowing more than her husband or the audience, and has prepared herself for confrontation, she does not know exactly how her feelings will develop or what will happen until the moment arrives. This actor must begin by moving from light chat about shopping, through manipulation and calm interrogation to mild anger. But by the end she gives an astonishing, existential, analysis of her situation, and delivers a shocking, visceral, finale.

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Director - Mark Humble

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Stage Manager - Liz Thomas

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Lighting - Jonathan Miller

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Lighting - Gareth Woodford

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Sound - Ian Santry

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Sound - Mark Humble

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Set Design and Construction - John Godliman

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Decor - Linda Russell

Runner's Up Award Leatherhead Drama Festival - 2009