By Marilyn Lester
Is there a soul alive who hasn’t wondered about the great mystery of life beyond the grave? Judging from the volume of thought recorded over the millennia of human existence, the answer to that question is a vigorous “who hasn’t!” The desire to know what comes next is inescapable. For playwright Lucas Hnath, the need to address life after death evolved out of personal experience; The Thin Place is based on an event involving his own mother. Part ghost story, part psychological treatise and part philosophical exposition, The Thin Place may have been cathartic for Hnath, but ultimately never resolves what it wants to be. In its own thin place, the resultant work falls to deliver any new insights into the nature of reality or the age-old secret of what lies beyond.
Hilda (Emily Cass McDonnell), the central character in the play, opens the work with an extended monologue about the psychic connection she shared with her recently deceased grandmother, a woman clearly into the mystical and other-worldly—an activity her daughter, Hilda’s mother, views as “demonic.” Hilda eventually finds her way to Linda (Randy Danson), a spiritualist who may or may not be legit. A great deal of verbiage is spent on these two characters who, with house lights up full, sit side by side in armchairs, earnestly searching for a meaningful play. Nor is there relief from tedium until two secondary characters make their entrance.
Segue to a dinner party in which Linda’s cousin Jerry (Triney Sandoval) and her friend Sylvia (Kelly McAndrew) appear and glide around the still seated pair. Accompanied by many glasses of wine, political and economic theories are dispensed along with metaphysics. Quite abruptly the theater goes dark and a “séance” ensues. By the time the lights come on again, you might wonder if you’d accidentally strayed into a screening of The Blair Witch Project. What’s apparent is that both Hilda and Linda are frightfully unreliable sources and weird stuff has happened, but little has occurred to answer any substantive questions (for or against) about “piercing the veil” aka the thin place. The zone that morphs from the material world to the next is as impenetrable and mysterious as ever.
Working closely with director Les Waters, Hnath has crafted his play to work on minimalism, stripping away the usual theatrical elements of light, set, movement and so on to focus on narrative. In many ways this choice works against what might have been a more nuanced exploration into the power of the mind and the nature of reality. Any hoped for emotional effect is short-circuited, despite the sound work of the play’s cast of talented actors. Rather than engaging and pulling in the audience, stultifying directorial and textual decisions only serve to distance and disappoint. This reviewer couldn’t help but think about Noël Coward’s old chestnut, the ever reliable “light comedy about death,” Blithe Spirit. Its explorations into spiritualism are far more illuminating and its séance a lot more fun.
The Thin Place has scenic design by Mimi Lien, costume design by Oana Botez, lighting design by Mark Barton and sound design by Christian Frederickson.
Photos: Joan Marcus
The Thin Place runs through January 5 in the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St., New York, NY. Run time is 90 minutes without an intermission.
For more information and tickets visit www.playwrightshorizos.org or call 212-564-1235