'The Twilight Zone': Theater Review

Courtesy of Marc Brenner
John Marquez in 'The Twilight Zone'
More spoofy than spooky.
12/27/2018

Rod Serling's classic TV thriller series is rebooted for the London stage by director Richard Jones and playwright Anne Washburn.

A midcentury design classic whose nerve-jangling theme music still sends Proustian shivers down the spine, The Twilight Zone became the inspirational benchmark for future generations of copycat paranormal thriller shows, from The X-Files to Black Mirror to Stranger Things. Created and chiefly written by Rod Serling, who also served as onscreen narrator, the initial series ran on CBS from 1959-1964. It later spawned a Spielberg-produced spinoff movie, followed by two further small-screen revivals. A new TV reboot is currently in development with Get Out director Jordan Peele attached as co-producer.

But it seems director Richard Jones (The Hairy Ape, La Bete) and playwright Anne Washburn (who previously drew from television in her Simpsons riff, Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play) are not fully convinced of the show's enduring power. Adapting eight original episodes into a two-act stage play spanning over two hours, their 21st century take on The Twilight Zone leans heavily on retro-kitsch irony and cheap laughs. The ensemble cast frequently resorts to hammy mugging while the staging is purposely lo-fi, deploying vaudevillian magic tricks and amateurish prosthetics instead of contemporary stagecraft. There's even a song-and-dance number. This kind of Austin Powers treatment, spoofing a TV show that already had a streak of self-aware humor, feels like a failure of nerve that weakens the underlying material.

In fairness, The Twilight Zone looks great. Designer Paul Steinberg recreates the show's period setting and visual grammar wholesale, using a minimalist set framed with a starry backdrop. A vintage CBS logo, a crackling TV screen and a free-standing doorway all serve as totemic reminders of the original. The color palette is mostly grays and muted blues, evoking the monochrome look of the screen version. Sarah Angliss' elegant electro-acoustic score mines the same jazz-noir mood without borrowing too heavily from Marius Constant's immortal theme tune. The overall effect is pleasing yet conservative, opting for nostalgic pastiche rather than inspired reinvention.

Prefiguring David Lynch, one of Serling's signature strengths as a writer was to conjure up the surreal and uncanny in folksy Middle American settings: Frank Capra meets Franz Kafka, with a side order of Ray Bradbury and H.P. Lovecraft. In the play's opening vignette, based on an episode titled Will The Real Martian Please Stand Up?, a group of bus passengers stranded in a snowy diner come under suspicion as possible undercover alien invaders. The TV blueprint is creepy and claustrophobic, with a twist of sly humor. But the stage version is played as broad comedy, diluting its eerie impact.

Thankfully, later chapters are more tonally assured. An episode based on Nightmare as a Child, in which an amnesiac woman (Amy Griffiths) learns of impending danger from a ghostly echo of her own past (Adrianna Bertola), is a crisp little psycho-thriller. The cryogenic future-shock fable The Long Morrow, about an astronaut (Sam Swainsbury) who spends 50 years in space while his devoted lover (Franc Ashman) waits for him, still works as a poignant romantic allegory. And Perchance to Dream, about a sickly insomniac (John Marquez) who risks being scared to death by a fantasy femme fatale (Lizzy Connolly), is a classic pulpy potboiler with a killer twist. Although the performances tend to get lost in ever-shifting accents and dramatic registers, Ashman and Marquez both stand out, as does 18-year-old Bertola in various child roles.

But by fragmenting and shuffling these eight stories into a multi-plot patchwork, Washburn and Jones do the tightly written originals a disservice, often draining them of tension and atmosphere. One celebrated episode featured in this production, the plastic surgery parable Eye of the Beholder, has a visual payoff onscreen that simply does not work in its filleted stage version. An even odder inclusion is a fragmentary subplot about a booze-addled ventriloquist's dummy, which seems only tangentially related to the TV series, and makes no sense here besides showcasing some fine puppet work.

Less cluttered and more coherent, the second act incorporates one of Serling's strongest teleplays, The Shelter, about a close-knit group of suburban neighbors who turn viciously against each other as they jostle for space in a nuclear bunker under the looming threat of atomic war. Touching on civil rights, antisemitism, slavery, immigration and all-American values, this compact morality play feels strikingly relevant to the Trump era despite its Cold War context. A few more such astute choices could have given this production real contemporary bite.

A recurring joke in Washburn's adaptation has various characters breaking the fourth wall to deliver one of Serling's portentous mini-sermons, to the bemusement of other players around them. All are interrupted before the familiar payoff line, apart from a final wrap-up speech by a Serling-like narrator (Marquez again). If this production was a full-blooded parody, all this self-referential Brechtian mischief might have taken us somewhere interesting. But The Twilight Zone hovers uneasily between stylish homage and apologetic spoof, uneven in tone and unsure of its own intentions.

There are fun festive frolics for the holiday season here, but Serling's groundbreaking TV shockfest deserves a more thoughtful reimagining.

Venue: Almeida Theatre, London
Cast: Oliver Alvin-Wilson, Franc Ashman, Adrianna Bertola, Lizzy Connolly, Amy Griffiths, Neil Haigh, Cosmo Jarvis, John Marquez, Matthew Needham. Sam Swainsbury
Playwright: Anne Washburn, based on stories by Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson
Director: Richard Jones
Set designer: Paul Steinberg
Costume designer: Nicky Gillibrand
Lighting designer: Mimi Jordan Sherin
Music and sound designer: Sarah Angliss
Fight director: Bret Yount
Illusions: Richard Wiseman, Will Houstoun
Presented by Almeida Theatre, in association with Ron Fogelman

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