Leave it to Lucas Hnath to be an iconoclast even when it comes to writing a spooky ghost story. The ever-adventurous playwright — whose recent works include A Doll’s House, Part 2, a “sequel” to Ibsen’s classic; and Hillary and Clinton, a fantasia involving Bill and Hillary Clinton — has produced one of his most daring works yet with this latest effort, involving the fateful relationship between a grieving young woman and a professional medium. Unfortunately, The Thin Place, receiving its New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons, reveals the playwright to be working on thin ice.
Unconventional from first moment to last, the experimental work begins with Hilda (Emily Cass McDonnell) delivering a monologue about her close relationship with her grandmother, who attempted to teach her to communicate with her psychically. Banished from their home by Hilda’s mother, who considered such activities “demonic,” the grandmother died shortly thereafter. And not too long after that, Hilda’s mother mysteriously went missing.
The house lights stay on throughout the monologue, delivered in matter-of-fact fashion, and stay lit for a good portion of the play, as if to make the audience complicit in what’s going on. The stage is bare, except for two comfortable chairs, and the back of the theater is exposed. There’s no artifice going on here, the playwright seems to be saying, although it soon becomes evident that the main character is an unreliable narrator.
We’re then introduced to the medium, Linda (Randy Danson, delivering a slyly comic performance), a middle-aged British woman who had to leave her native country because of pesky European Union rules about mediums’ professional conduct (now there’s an argument for Brexit we haven’t heard before). Describing herself as a “radio antenna” who can tune into those souls who have passed on to the other side, Linda contacts Hilda’s grandmother, who reassures Hilda that she’s not at fault for the family rift or her subsequent stroke.
Hilda’s comfort proves short-lived, however, as Linda soon reveals that she really has no psychic powers and instead relies on calculated guesswork to achieve her effects. “It’s really not all that different from that so-called psychotherapy, except what I do actually works,” she says cheekily. Instead, it turns out that it may actually be Hilda who has the ability to access the “thin place” separating the living from the dead. At a dinner party attended by Hilda’s cousin Jerry (Triney Sandoval) and friend Sylvia (Kelly McAndrew), she delivers a spooky tale about the last time she saw her mother, punctuated by an eerie phone call.
A few moments later, the theater is plunged into pitch darkness for several minutes, which proves as gimmicky as when the house lights were on in full. Then, the stage is dimly illuminated by a single red bulb, as Hilda describes the events that occurred after the party.
On one level, the play can be taken as a standard theatrical suspenser featuring chilling, if low-rent, theatrical effects, and some presentational meta-theatricality including, at one point, a mind-reading trick involving a supposed audience member. But Hnath and director Les Waters clearly have more serious ideas in mind, exploring such topics as the inability to fully comprehend the difference between reality and illusion and, as the theater’s artistic director helpfully explains in a program note, “the paradox of Kantian philosophy.” (Even more pretentious is the full-page black-and-white photograph of Hnath, with his long, windswept hair, thick scarf and pensive gaze into the distance making him look like a 19th century poet.)
The play doesn’t fully work in either department. Much of its talkiness, especially in the dinner party scene which seems to go on forever, proves boringly banal. And the ineffective attempts at delivering spooky scares, including that old standby of a phone suddenly loudly going off, feel contrived, like a child attempting to frighten his friends by putting a sheet over his head (a similar visual is on display here).
Although Sandoval and McAndrew make scant impressions in their admittedly underwritten roles, the lead performances are not to be faulted. McDonnell is excellent as the troubled Hilda, delivering a subtly off-kilter performance that succeeds in keeping us on edge, and Danson provides an entertaining turn as the amusingly down-to-earth Linda. But their efforts are not enough to lift the play above the level of minor curiosity, especially coming from a playwright whose work always proves intriguing.
Venue: Peter Jay Sharp Theater, New York
Cast: Randy Danson, Kelly McAndrew, Emily Cass McDonnell, Triney Sandoval
Playwright: Lucas Hnath
Director: Les Waters
Set designer: Mimi Lien
Costume designer: Oana Botez
Lighting designer: Mark Barton
Sound designer: Christian Frederickson
Presented by Playwrights Horizons