The 2023-2024 Broadway season is off to a thrilling start…as in “stage thriller,” that is. Seeing Ira Levin’s classic Deathtrap with Robert Reed and Marian Seldes was a great formative experience in my theatregoing as a teen but by adulthood they’d pretty much dried up. They’re hard to get right (and easily spoiled on Wiki and in chat rooms) and if they go wrong they’re instantly ludicrous. But when they come together the results can be scarily satisfying; playwright Stephen Karam told me that the look and feel of The Humans, which won the Best Play Tony in 2016, were explicitly modeled on the film Rosemary’s Baby (Levin, the author of the source novel, casts a long shadow on this genre).
An import from Chicago, Levi Holloway’s Grey House, now at the venerable Lyceum, out-Humans The Humans in its grandly dilapidated design. Scott Pask’s set, “a cabin in the woods” according to the Playbill, looks to have been hollowed out from rock, forest, and deep winter snow. Its parlor and kitchen, to use those terms loosely, are a collection of weathered odds and ends tumbled down over the decades, as if anyone finding themselves somewhere so godforsaken had never left. Natasha Katz’s lighting casts a clammy, underlit pall over the stage; her co-conspirator in atmospherics, sound designer Tom Gibbons, surely amplified the shrieks emanating from the basement…
Into this house that is only loosely a home (the cracks in the ceiling seem to be leaking right over your seat) enter two travelers, Max (Tatiana Maslany, very capably understudied by Claire Karpen the night I attended) and Henry (all-purpose theatre and TV veteran Paul Sparks). A car crash in the snow has left Henry with a broken ankle and them stranded. “I’ve seen this movie,” Henry states. “What happens?” Max asks. “We don’t make it” comes the half-humorous reply.
Gradually, and spookily, five children materialize, including the sharp-tongued, Goth-ish Marlow (Sophia Anne Caruso, transplanted from the graveyard antics of the Beetlejuice musical), the deaf, and enigmatic, Bernie (Millicent Simmonds, from the Quiet Place shockers), and the cute, oddly named A1656 (Alyssa Emily Martin). The year is 1977 but the quintet is dressed out of period, with hand-me-downs apparently handed down across eras. (The inventively oddball clothes are designed by Rudy Mance.) Barely maintaining the household is Raleigh (Laurie Metcalf), the put-upon, cantankerous caretaker, quick with a nasty quip and, if you’re agreeable, a snootful of high-octane moonshine. High as a kite from the stash (stored, interchangeably with some foodstuffs, in the fridge) Henry, resting on the couch, is visited by a character known only as The Ancient (Cyndi Coyne), a crone who leaves him…changed. Call this bunch The Subhumans.
Besides providing a creepy jump scare early on The Ancient’s function is never really explained. If she reminds you of a character in The Shining, you may be onto something, as the book was written in 1977. Henry’s suddenly obsessive behavior around the distrustful kids may be another nod to Stephen King; correspondingly, Max’s stirring of maternal feeling as Henry withers and Raleigh comes unglued and unhelpful may put you in mind of the film of the horror novel The Sentinel, released in…1977. The coven-like behavior of the children, who eerily sing old-timey and country tunes (Bernie in American Sign Language), conjure the book Harvest Home and the…1977…movie Suspiria. There’s what may be an unintended meta-moment involving Henry’s ankle and Metcalf, who received a Tony nomination for the play of King’s Misery. (Who are we to judge if Metcalf wants to be scream queen Barbara Steele at this stage of her career?) And so on.
This is a conundrum for director Joe Mantello, of The Humans. That show (filmed by Karam in 2021) is a masterwork of psychological unease that works independently of its inspirations. Here he’s more of an Easter egg farmer, as he and Holloway, winking at all the play’s sources, draw out the pace before doling out another admittedly well-timed shock. While ambiguity can be rewarding, however, the loose ends here are too loose, Scotch-taped with a bit of historical horror and contemporary MeToo-ing before a predictable finish. For all the cleverly distressed upholstery Grey House lacks a solid foundation–though it is an offbeat way to begin a new season.