When it comes to horror, Broadway typically cedes turf to Hollywood, the occasional Martin McDonough play notwithstanding. There have been giant apes, operatic phantoms, and a misguided vampire or two without providing so much as a single genuine tingle.
All of which makes the effort of Grey House so bold. A creepy mash-up of haunted house tropes, cabin in the woods traditions, ghosty kids, errant hatchets, screams, black-outs and the sort of Lynchian lounge music that drips with reverb and menace, Grey House hails from the playwright Levi Holloway and director Joe Mantello, with stars Laurie Metcalf, Tatiana Maslany, and Paul Sparks joined by ferociously talented quintet of child-to-adolescent actors.
Together, they deliver a savvy tale that might be likened to a dark, lonely lake on a moonless night – scary enough on the surface, scarier still when one ponders what’s below the surface. There are some stretches that start to feel dull or repetitive, possibly the result of confusion as to what, exactly, is going on, but such moments fade with the next scream.
(Though the Broadway production officially opened at the Lyceum Theatre on May 30, reviews were embargoed until tonight so that critics could see the full company – Tatiana Maslany had been out sick for some of the previously scheduled review performances).
The premise is as old as Hollywood horror itself: A young couple driving on a snowy backroad hits a deer and come limping to the only shelter within miles, a creaky old cabin with a cord-cut telephone (the year is 1977, so forget about battery life or FaceTime) and more than its share of spooky little girls with old-timey nightgowns, pale faces, lanky hair and seemingly telepathic ways of communicating with one another. Oh, and they occasionally break into strange dances and eerily precise vocal harmonies on songs that seem drenched in mountain nostalgia.
Into this not-quite-past, not-quite-present abode comes the stranded young couple, Maslany’s Max and her husband Henry (Sparks). He’s injured, with a possibly broken angle, a bleeding foot and gashed forehead. With the kids – and anyone else – scattered to the many nooks and crannies of what the couple initially assumes to be an empty old home, Max and Henry sense the obvious. “I’ve seen this movie,” Henry half-jokes. “We don’t make it.”
And that’s before they’ve seen what we’ve seen: Before the couple entered the house, the spooky girls were already up to some spooky stuff, sing-chanting and gathering tools and hanging some nasty-looking red-ribbony stuff from the ceiling that makes us think of butcher shops and smokehouses. In other words, I’d turn back if I were you.
We might be comforted, but just for a second, with the arrival of Metcalf’s Raleigh, who one might assume to be the mother of this sisterhood (and of one little, mostly silent boy, affectionately called Mister Man as if there’s just been a family fun night watching Misery).
But Raleigh proves no comfort at all. She’s older than the stranded couple, 50s to their 30s, unkempt, grey hair a tangle, and has a way of setting a broken bone to make the sufferer vomit in pain. Her daughters? She calls them “willful creatures,” sounding rather like she’s about to ask Lloyd the Bartender for child-rearing advice.
And then there’s her uncharming description of the family home, which she delivers as the house creaks and groans like the Titanic breaking apart.
“This house,” she says, “oh this house. She used to be such a friend in a storm. But one day you wake up and there’s not a friend in sight. Not in the ones you fed, and certainly not in the fucking mirror. And you think maybe you’ll just smash your fucking face right through it.” She pauses before adding ominously, “You’ll see.”
So yeah, things are going to happen tonight. To ease his pain, Henry gets drunk on whatever is in the mason jars that appear – occasionally – in the refrigerator. The kids seem to know just what the couple will say next – and have the unnerving propensity to recite their dialogue in perfect sync. There’s a general air of dread and foreboding, and the girls have odd names like Squirrel and A1656 (“It’s no A1655,” she deadpans. “But luck is luck.”)
Most equal among the sisterly equals is Marlow (Sophia Anne Caruso), the aggressive ringleader with long dark hair, bangs and a vibe that’s vaguely The Ring, vaguely Wednesday Addams.
Without giving too much away – did I mention there’s an old lady who sometimes dresses like one of the girls but generally just wanders around in the shadows – Grey House builds up its tension through blackouts, loud, screeching music cues and people crawling out of the woodwork – literally – when you least expect. There’s retribution coming, justice of sorts for a long, unforgivable history of male-on-female violence, murdered girls and the boys-to-men who get away with it all. At least, until they get drawn to Grey House.
That much, at least, you’ll likely have figured out before the last and final house shudder, but other mysteries – just who are all these girls? Why the strange names? What do that have to do, if anything, with Max and Henry? And what the hell is under that big silver tray cover in the middle of the makeshift dining table?
If playwright Holloway leaves some of his intentions and messages hidden somewhere in Grey House‘s nooks and crannies, director Mantello goes a long way in whistling past the graveyard with split-second timing and perfectly ominous pacing. We don’t see the weird chalk marks beneath the ratty rug a moment before we need to, and by then it’s too late: A horrific game – a sort of hellish truth or dare, with the consequences for lying paid by a screaming person in another room – has proven inevitable.
Played out on Scott Pask’s terrifically clever cabin design, in which the remote outpost can seem cozy one moment and loaded with very hungry furniture the next, Grey House features top notch creative choices. Natasha Katz’ lighting design might just as easily be called shadow design, so adept it is in concealing whatever Grey House wants concealed at any particular moment. Tom Gibbons’ sound design contains all the creaks, whispers, echoes and screeches that a good haunting requires, and Rudy Mance’s sly costume design only gradually reveals the era-specific details of the wearers.
Also of note: The music supervision and a cappella arrangements of Or Matias, and Ellenore Scott’s movement design that places both the children and the tale in a sort of netherworld of folklore, urban legend, mountain haints and ’70s slasher flicks.
The cast is excellent. Metcalf scores another fine collaboration with Mantello (Three Tall Women, Hillary and Clinton), and Maslany (Orphan Black) demonstrates a stage comfort and depth that she hadn’t quite managed in Ivo van Hove’s Network. Sparks is suitably inscrutable as the wounded and wounding Everyman, and the children are terrific: Sophia Anne Caruso, as the protective Marlow, cements her well-earned reputation as the stage’s go-to girl for all things off-kilter (David Bowie’s Lazarus, Beetlejuice). Deaf actor Millicent Simmonds (A Quiet Place) gives her Bernie an ethereal quality that can seem both gentle and threatening, and Alyssa Emily Marvin as the oddly named A1656 conveys the only real compassion to be found. Colby Kipnes is suitably feral (and her movements superbly musical when called for) as Squirrel, Eamon Patrick O’Connell nicely weird as the cute little boy who never quite reveals his secrets and, as the Ancient, Cyndi Coyne seems as ghoulish as any banshee in Inisherin.
From eldest to youngest, the cast, guided by Mantello through the gloom of night, finds all the shadings Holloway can dream up, from Universal Horror to the heady disquiet of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child and Bug-era Tracy Letts. The playwright, making his Broadway debut, has a way to go before matching those two savants of lurking, surreal horror, but Grey House shows him knocking on all the right doors.
Title: Grey House
Venue: Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre
Director: Joe Mantello
Playwright: Levi Holloway
Cast: Laurie Metcalf, Tatiana Maslany, Paul Sparks, Sophia Anne Caruso, Millicent Simmonds, Cyndi Coyne, Colby Kipnes, Alyssa Emily Marvin, Eamon Patrick O’Connell.
Running time: 1 hr 40 min (no intermission)