Grey House Review. Can Horror work on stage?

The set-up is straight out of a standard-issue  horror movie:  A couple who’ve been in a car crash on an isolated mountain top during a blizzard seek shelter, and help, in a creaking old house. “I’ve seen this movie,” Henry (Paul Sparks), the injured husband, says as he enters. But, despite the wisecrack, “Grey House” is not a “Rocky Horror Show”-like spoof. It doesn’t subvert the horror genre; it tries to make horror work on stage. That the production partially succeeds in doing so is thanks to its stagecraft: The design team works wonders, or terrors, especially sound designer Tom Gibbons and lighting designer Natasha Katz, who’s on a streak — Tony-nominated for two of the three Broadway shows she lit last season; a crucial player in this first Broadway show of the new season.  The cast under the direction of Joe Mantello also does its damnedest. But the show falls short for me, more an exercise in chills than a satisfying work of theater. I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise. If it were easy to translate the genre to the stage, wouldn’t the Broadway adaptation of two of Stephen King’s bestsellers have been hits – “Misery” in 2015 and more infamously, “Carrie” in 1988?

Grey House L to R Sophia Anne Caruso, Laurie Metcalf, Eamon Patrick O’Connell, Tatiana Maslany, Alyssa Emily Marvin, Paul Sparks, Millicent Simmonds

King has identified three levels in his genre – the “Gross-Out”  (“the sight of a severed head tumbling down the stairs”), the “Horror” (“when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm.”) and “the last and worst one: Terror…when the lights go out and you feel something behind you…but when you turn around there’s nothing there.”) In “Grey House,” playwright Levi Holloway offers a few examples of the first two levels – a glimpse of a bloody limb; a figure  who suddenly leaps out from the dark above the refrigerator – but is mostly going for the terror of the inexplicable. 

Inexplicable is a good description of the behavior by the five children who finally appear from the cellar and various crevices to greet the injured Henry and his wife Max  (the role, normally played by Tatiana Maslany, was undertaken by her understudy Claire Karpen at the press performance I attended.)  They stare blankly, sing eerily, speak enigmatically – except for Bernie who signs enigmatically in American Sign Language (portrayed by Millicent Simmons, best known for the Quiet Place horror franchise.) One of them has an inexplicable name: A1656 (Alyssa Emily Marvin.)  The one boy among the children (Eamon Patrick O’Connell) doesn’t have a name – or has had many names, most recently Mr. Man. Squirrel ( Colby Kipnes) likes to gnaw on things, including the telephone (The play is set in 1977, before cell phones, the existence of which might cut the story quite short.) 

 Marlow (Sophia Anne Caruso, late of Beetlejuice) is the most directly menacing, interrogating Max while holding a small knife.

“You don’t need to be afraid,” Max tries to reassure Marlow.

“Neither do you,” Marlow replies. “This knife would take forever to kill somebody, it’s so small. If I put it in your eye, it wouldn’t even hit your brain.”

It takes a while for the couple to meet the one adult in the house, Raleigh, portrayed by Laurie Metcalf. Raleigh is gruff and blunt and resentful; we soon realize that, although she cooks and cleans for the children, they don’t seem to  treat her as their mother. She sees them as “willful creatures” – and, we eventually learn, feels trapped by them.

The nine-member cast is rounded out by The Ancient (Cyndi Coyne) who is mute, and…never explained.

The human beings aren’t all that act inexplicably. The cellar door inexplicably swings open by itself, full of inexplicable smoke.  The refrigerator has different contents every time somebody opens it, most eerily,  jars that are each labeled with a man’s name and a date. Henry is told this is moonshine and he is urged to drink one of the jars to help him heal. It doesn’t.

All these inexplicable goings-on add to a sense of dread and mystery and creepiness, but they don’t add up to much of a play. The characters seem to exist only to be spooky.  There is little psychological reality. Metcalf — who, perhaps tellingly, was the star with Bruce Willis of “Misery” on Broadway — has a relatively small role in “Grey House,” but, thanks largely to her performance, offers some of the few moments when a character feels grounded in reality. This contrasts with a play like  “The Humans,” by Stephen Karam, which had some supernatural elements never explained, but these served to underscore the tensions within the credibly-etched individuals in a family.  

“Grey House” eventually reaches a resolution of sorts, and offers a cursory and annoyingly abstract explanation for what has been going on, having something to do with retribution for the sins of mankind against womankind throughout the ages. But this feels less like the engine for the show than its caboose – something unnecessary added at the end.  The lesson here might be that creating a satisfying play, no matter what the genre, requires that the humans feel necessary.

Grey House
Lyceum Theater through September 3. Update: Closing July 30.
Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission.
Tickets: $58 to $278. digital lottery: $50; rush: $35
Written by Levi Holloway
Directed by Joe Mantello 
Scenic design by Scott Pask, costume design by Rudy Mance, lighting design by Natasha Katz, sound design by Tom Gibbons, hair and wig design by Katie Gell and Robert Pickens, makeup design by Christina Grant. Voice coach Gigi Buffington. Movement consultant Ellenore Scott. Music supervisor and a cappella arranger Or Matias . Director of artistic sign language Andrew Morrill.
Cast: Laurie Metcalf, Tatiana Maslany, Paul Sparks, Sophia Anne Caruso, Millicent Simmonds, Colby Kipnes, Alyssa Emily Marvin, Eamon Patrick O’Connell, and Cyndi Coyne.
Photos by MurphyMade

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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