It’s 1977, there’s a blizzard raging outside, and a lost couple crashes their car into a deer on a mountain road, leaving it dead, him hurt, them stranded, and seeking shelter in an isolated cabin with a group of strange inhabitants. So begins the Broadway premiere of playwright Levi Holloway’s Grey House at the Lyceum Theatre. What happens over the next hour and a half has all the predictable ingredients of a stereotypical supernatural horror story – eerie lighting and haze, scary sounds, bizarre behavior, and weird occurrences – everything except a cohesive plot or coherent message.
Directed by Joe Mantello, the play, along with the requisite tropes of the genre, injects touches of dark comedy and gallows humor (which drew early laughs from the audience at the performance I attended), as the injured husband Henry (who mordantly notes that he’s seen this before and they don’t get out) and his wife Max (who was fatefully driving) meet the unusual characters (four girls, a boy, and their maybe/maybe not mother) and play along with their odd comments (about stabbing a person in the eye), lack of specificity (often throwing up their arms or responding “sometimes”), and ominous songs and games (“If you lie, a mother will die”).
For me, the show, which becomes increasingly grave, might have worked better as a full-out parody, than a macabre and bloody reckoning of man’s inhumanity, obliquely referencing everything from the Holocaust to sexual abuse by its discordantly moralizing conclusion. At least I think that’s what it was about (hard to say; word around the theater community has it that the production sent out explanatory emails to some members of the press to clarify what should have been clear to reviewers from watching it, not reading about the playwright’s actual intent afterwards).
A “sometimes” funny, “sometimes” creepy cast of nine delivers the “sometimes” obvious, “sometimes” cryptic material and characterizations, led by two-time Tony winner Laurie Metcalf as the welcoming but caustic Raleigh, who tends to the kids, Claire Karpen as the accepting Max (filling in for Tatiana Maslany, who has missed many of the press dates due to COVID), Sophia Anne Caruso as the menacing alpha girl Marlow – all three female but inexplicably given male names – and Paul Sparks as the ill-fated Henry (called Hank by the children), who called it from the get-go.
They are given comical/scary support by Millicent Simmonds as Bernie (a deaf actress and advocate who expressively delivers her role in American Sign Language, under the ASL direction of Andrew Morrill), Colby Kipnes as Squirrel, and Alyssa Emily Marvin as A1656 – the oddly named girls who await release from this halfway house for tortured souls with the exacting of vengeance – along with the young and silent Eamon Patrick O’Connell as The Boy. There’s also an older woman, played by Cyndi Coyne and identified in the program as “The Ancient” – a ghostly apparition who shows up from time to time, mostly to terrorize Henry. All do a commendable job with the material and characters they’ve been given (among the most chilling scenes are the girls’ progressively intense and well-executed a cappella songs and harmonies, with music supervision and arrangements by Or Matias and growingly ferocious movement by Ellenore Scott), in this inconsistent mash-up of laughs, frights, and call-out of toxic masculinity.
Of course, for a fright show to be in any way effective, the artistic design is key. Scott Pask provides an appropriately spooky set, with a basement door (or “mouth to hell”) that opens to blinding light and fog effects, a run-down refrigerator filled with mason jars of the “moonshine” Hank is given to drink (which, as it turns out, is actually “the nectar of dead men”), and an overhanging weaving of internal body parts, among other gruesome elements. Lighting by Natasha Katz goes from dark to glowing to sudden blackouts, Tom Gibbons’ sound is mysterious and disturbing, and costumes by Rudy Mance, hair and wigs by Katie Gell and Robert Pinkins, and make-up by Christina Grant are indicative of the living, dead, and soon-to-be-dead characters who wear them.
Grey House precariously straddles the grey area between otherworldly horror, dark comedy, and socio-political commentary without fully synthesizing the three, thereby rendering it more frightfully vague and disjointed than truly frightening.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes, without intermission.