The Thin Place review: Lucas Hnath attempts a theatrical séance

“The Thin Place” is a thin play by Lucas Hnath about a woman named Hilda whose grandmother had believed in being able to communicate with the dead, which sets Hilda on her own psychic journey.

When the play begins, Hilda (Emily Cass McDonnell) is sitting in one of two upholstered armchairs facing the audience, telling us the story of how her grandmother tried to train her to learn how to enter what Hilda describes as the “thin place …where the line between this world and some other world is very thin.” Her grandmother hoped that Hilda would be able to communicate with her after she died.

Then her grandmother did die. And a year ago, as Hilda tells us, after her mother went “missing,” Hilda went to the “sitting” (séance) of a professional psychic named Linda.

Just then, Linda (Randy Danson) enters the stage and sits in the other armchair. Together they tell the story of that first experience in which Hilda witnessed Linda communicating with the dead. Hilda tells us that Linda and she became close enough friends that Linda confided in Hilda that she sees what she does as a “trick..What I do sits somewhere between the real and the unreal — how like a metaphor works — You know what I mean….I just sit there and say whatever pops into my head and let the person sittin’ across from me turn it into somethin’. … ” But she doesn’t see this as a con; she thinks she helps her clients come to terms with the loss of loved ones. “It’s really not all that different from that so-called psychotherapy, except what I do actually works.”

Later, Linda invites Hilda to a party, and two other characters, Linda’s friends Sylvia and Jerry, appear on the stage, standing around the two armchairs. The party chatter reveals that Linda was “run out of” her native England, as she puts it, with “criminal charges pending,” because she refused to include the “mandatory disclaimers” that what she does is just entertainment; to have done so, she says, “ruins the mood.”

However this might sound,  “The Thin Place” is not some kind of exposé of the occult. It sometimes feels the exact opposite — an invitation to the audience to entertain the possibilities firsthand.

 In the last twenty minutes or so, the scene changes in a way I’m obviously not supposed to detail. But even if the show’s creators wanted me to summarize what happens, I don’t think I could. It has to do with Hilda’s mother; that much is evident.  I suspect the point of Hnath’s play is, like Linda’s séances,  to create a mood —  a ghost story/horror story meant to keep the audience on edge.

All four actors are fine; McDonnell is a good storyteller and  I was especially drawn to Randy Danson’s matter-of-fact medium. Hnath, whose mother is an ordained minister and who at one time considered becoming a member of the clergy himself, might have been trying to make subtle points about the nature of faith, as he did in The Christians 

It’s been just seven year since Hnath’s first produced play, “Death Tax” (which “The Thin Place” director Les Waters helmed as artistic director of the Humana Festival of New American Plays.) He’s had an impressive track record since then, even as my reactions to his work have varied.  Of the two plays of his that have made it to Broadway,  I loved his “A Doll’s House, Part 2.” I loathed “Hillary and Clinton.” My overwhelming reaction to “The Thin Place” was to be underwhelmed. There is more stagecraft to “The Thin Place” than just those two armchairs (eventually.) But unlike, say,  Derren Brown Secret,   I felt no “how did he do that?!” moments, even near the end during what was surely meant to provoke such a response.  I was not scared or moved or provoked, although I was certainly uncertain, and occasionally completely in the dark. 

The Thin Place
Playwrights Horizons
Written by Lucas Hnath
Directed by Les Waters
Scenic design by Mimi Lien, costume design by Oana Botez, lighting design by Mark Barton, sound design by Christian Frederickson
Cast: Randy Danson as Linda, Kelly McAndrew as Sylvia, Emily Cass McDonnell as Hilda, Triney Sandoval as Jerry
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $59-$99
“The Thin Place” is on stage through January 5, 2020.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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