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Review by Michael Bracken


Remember The Exorcist? If not, Emily Schwend’s phantasmal drama, The Other Thing, at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre, will surely refresh your memory. But be patient. To its credit, the play takes almost all of Act I to reveal its true nature, and when it does it’s unexpectedly exciting and unnerving. The second act is another story.

Carl (John Doman), a self-styled, down home ghost hunter, is on an assignment, as is Kim (Samantha Soule), a freelance journalist. He’s checking out a supposedly haunted barn in northern Virginia, while she’s interviewing him for a feature she says she’s writing for the Washington Post. They’re sitting outside the barn on lawn chairs, drinking beer as they chat.

Carl does most of the talking, answering her questions and throwing in his favorite ghost stories. With a slight drawl and an easy manner, Carl speaks about the spectral beings he’s seen, the ones he’s talked to, and the spirit he set free. His son, Brady (James Kautz) comes out of the barn and joins them, sitting on the ground.

Brady’s got a chip on his shoulder the size of a boulder. He clearly resents what he’s doing, yet he gets defensive about it when he’s left alone with Kim. He’s suspicious of her motives. And he calls her out when she vacillates as to whether she believes in ghosts, although he does pretty much the same thing.

He doesn’t miss a beat, however, when Kim asks him about the people who hire them: half are crazy, half are lonely, and another half are both. Presumably he ghost hunts for the sake of his dad, with whom he’s always bickering but whom he clearly loves.

Doman and Kautz capture the dynamic between Carl and Brady with plainspoken artlessness. Their constant quibbling is rooted in affection, and they’re always watching out for each other. We never doubt they’re father and son.

Carl returns, Brady leaves, and the steady stream of talk onstage starts to wear very thin. Then, when we least expect it, the light outside the barn suddenly, markedly brightens. Kim doubles over in apparent pain and rises as a new being, her voice stronger, her attitude bolder. She challenges, then insults Carl. Kim is no longer Kim; it’s as if she’s possessed.

In fact, she is. An angry, violent, powerful force has taken over. And her angry, violent power is turned on Carl, who is caught completely off-guard. It’s a seismic shift. Evil has arrived, and Soule knows how to play it.

Until now, as Kim, she’s been self-effacing, slightly insecure, apologetic, wanting to be liked. As Kim II, she’s a study in unleashed fury, but she’s in control. Her words are daggers but her delivery deliberate, her demeanor restrained. And she almost completely demolishes Carl. It’s a thrilling conclusion to an act that’s meandered along, only to culminate in an explosion.

The fire at the end of Act I quickly sputters in Act II. Kim delivers a gripping but ultimately self-serving monologue about her mother’s violent death, indirectly caused by her father. It’s clear her Mom is Kim II and all too clear what fuels her rage at men.

Kim II’s fatal manifestations become more frequent and less compelling. Each metamorphosis is more heavy-handed than the last, accompanied by increasingly wooden dialogue. By the final monologue, when she visits a torpid, oxygen-deprived Carl in the hospital, her words are an unconvincing feminist screed. We expect her to belt out a verse or two of “I Am Woman,” but thankfully she doesn’t.

Director Lucie Tiberghien’s talented design team includes Matthew Richards, whose lighting is surprisingly effective at indicating Kim’s personality shifts. Set designer Kris Stone cleverly uses the wall that serves as the outside of the barn in Act I as the inside of Kim’s bedroom in Act II, with slats placed so that you can see into her bathroom behind it.

Schwend has a gift for storytelling, as evidenced by the well-structured first act. But in her zeal to communicate, she drowns her message in excess that makes it unfathomable.

The Other Thing. At Second Stage Theatre’s uptown home the McGinn/Cazale Theatre, Broadway at 76th St. . Through Sunday, June 7th. 2 hours including intermission.