GREY HOUSE Keeps Us Wondering — Review
Back in 2015, Emily Schwend’s The Other Thing made a low-key New York debut as part of Second Stage’s Uptown series. The play followed a journalist reporting on a small band of ghost chasers outside a haunted barn in Virginia. The only specter present, it turns out, is the journalist herself – she is unknowingly a vessel for the murderous spirit of her mother, who is taking vengeance for a life defined by misogynistic cruelty by killing toxic men in her daughter’s orbit.
The Other Thing came to mind in considering Levi Holloway’s new play Grey House, opening this past Tuesday at the Lyceum Theatre. Holloway similarly uses elements of horror to dissect intergenerational cycles of male violence, and to interrogate the lengths to which women must go for protection and preservation. The play’s deployment of horror in attacking these themes, particularly its more surreal turns, is often highly effective in director Joe Mantello’s freaky, disquieting staging. Yet the play lands on a vague, sentimental conclusion that blunts its overall power.
The setting is an isolated cabin, seemingly in the year 1977. A couple seeks help after crashing their car in a storm. Henry (Paul Sparks) and Max (Claire Karpen, in for a COVID-sidelined Tatiana Maslany) find they’ve stumbled into a home with some strange denizens: four haunted young girls who move, and sing, in a sort of unison; a small boy who never speaks; and Raleigh (Laurie Metcalf), who introduces herself as the children’s mother and seems to care for them, but is clearly not in charge. As the children look after the injured Henry, feeding him a strange substance from jars kept in their fridge, they engage Max in a series of bizarre rituals which increasingly come to feel like tests. But what is she being tested for?
Though Grey House is ultimately more psychological thriller than horror, Mantello packs the early scenes with jump scares and some heavy foreboding. Loud screeching noises howl from the walls of Scott Pask’s overwhelming set, which never moves but feels – thanks to sound designer Tom Gibbons’ precise work – like it is swaying in front of you. A mysterious older woman dubbed “The Ancient” (Cyndi Coyne, creepy as hell) appears suddenly out of dark corners. And the basement door keeps creeping open of its own accord, revealing glimpses of some Hellmouth lurking underneath.
“Our basement is the gaping mouth to hell,” the girls’ unofficial leader Marlow (Sophia Anne Caruso) casually confirms when Max inquires. “Is that okay with you?”
Mantello allows a deliberate clash between his horror-y staging and Holloway’s penchant for knowing humor. The clash sometimes works. Max is initially unfazed by the children’s creepy behavior, even meeting their strangeness with gallows humor. (When Marlow bemoans the difficulty of killing her with a small knife, Max does not miss a beat before replying: “You could go for the throat.”)
At other times, the play’s humor confuses its overall tone. Max greets the house’s bizarre happenings with calm at one moment but fear the next, depending on the demands of the story. Metcalf fires off Raleigh’s explosions of anger with a sardonic “DAD’S DEAD” delivery style that deflates serious moments.
A hugely powerful stage presence, Metcalf ultimately feels miscast here as a subservient figure who exists so totally under the children’s control (not just in an emotional sense). Metcalf can certainly deliver brilliant work in a lower register, but she doesn’t commit to that here. Even at Raleigh’s supposedly meeker moments, her natural authority is too keenly felt. A scene where Marlow braids Raleigh’s hair is sweet, but the two can’t quite sell an intended sisterly dynamic.
Grey House is strongest when it is at its weirdest. By far the most arresting sequence is Henry’s hallucinatory journey through a series of fragmented memories, some possibly his own, some belonging to others (further explanation would spoil). Sparks is tremendous in this sequence, subtly suggesting a dangerous anger lurking underneath surface affability.
Equally tremendous are the quartet of “sisters.” Caruso, Colby Kipnes, Alyssa Emily Marvin & Millicent Simmonds exist together on stage like a singular organism, moving and speaking as one in an astonishing feat of shared performance. Holloway smartly incorporates American Sign Language into the girls’ shared bond, with Marvin seamlessly translating for Simmonds and the girls sometimes signing only for private thoughts. (Ellenore Scott did the movement; Andrew Morrill was the director of ASL.) Simmonds stands out as the richest performer of the four, but their achievement is ultimately a shared one.
When the play reaches the point of explaining things, Holloway simply allows himself too much vagueness. The girls’ shared history, and the manner in which Henry comes to represent it, is more referential towards unending cycles of violence towards women than a full exploration of the theme. That a man can be an embodiment of certain evils alongside his own individual complexity, a duality which Schwend’s play took more interest in, is not really delved into. And it feels like some mysteries are left vague because Holloway’s explanations might sound wacky if spoken aloud. Grey House is an absorbing and often brilliant work, but it never quite lives up to its own potential.
Grey House is now in performance at the Lyceum Theatre on West 45th Street. For tickets and more information, visit here.