Tom Ross, the artistic director of the Aurora Theatre Company, says his favorite playwrights have a unique, distinctive voice - there's no mistaking that you're watching their work. That's one of the reasons he likes Neil LaBute, whose controversial plays (including Fat Pig and In the Company of Men) and movies such as Your Friends and Neighbors, critics have called misanthropic.
"I like his subject matter and where he takes an audience," Ross said. "And he writes incredible dialogue, and when actors say it just pops - it's fresh and real and invigorating."
So Ross feels excited about LaBute's This Is How It Goes, opening at the Aurora on June 20. Ross was the first to bring LaBute to the Bay Area with The Shape of Thingsin 2003, and the Aurora also put on Fat Pig in 2009. Ross says although LaBute isn't for everyone, the Aurora's audience has welcomed his plays.
"He brings in a different crowd as well," Ross said. "A lot of younger people come who know him as a filmmaker, and it's fun to have a nice mixture in the audience."
In a recent review of LaBute's Reasons to Be Happy in the New York Times, LaBute was described as "mellowing." That's not the case in This Is How It Goes, his 2005 play about an interracial couple in a small town, Ross says.
"This is Neil LaBute unfiltered," Ross says. "I think this is one of his most controversial, and I don't want to give too much away because it pulls rug out from under you three or four times."
Ross says the push to do the play came from actor Aldo Billingslea when he was starring in Collapse at the Aurora in 2009, as an impotent sex addict.
"In the first day of rehearsal practically, Aldo was saying, 'If you ever want to do This Is How It Goes, I would love to play Cody,'" Ross said. "He kept talking about it with Carrie [Paff] and Gabe [Marin] who were in the show as well, and bringing them scripts. So we've been raring to go for years."
Paff will play a character simply called "Woman" in This Is How It Goes, while Marin will play "Man." Ross says he understands why Billingslea wants to take on the play.
"It's a fantastical role for an African American actor," Ross said. "It really pushes audiences' buttons in a way that confronts racism in an interesting way. Aldo knows people will talk about this and discussion is important. Although we all pat ourselves on the back that we live in a liberal enclave, racism does happen, and we can't just push it under the rug."
Ross thinks LaBute is brave in his choice of uncomfortable subject matter.
"Some people think he's a misanthrope, but I think he's a moralist," Ross said. "He confronts our darkest behavior."
This Is How It Goes opens at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St in Berkeley, on June 20 and runs through July 21. For tickets ($35-60) and information, call (510) 843-4822 or visit the Aurora's website.