EXTENDED THRU APRIL 19
By JK Clarke
Site specific productions have been particularly popular in recent years, especially in Off Off Broadway experimental theater endeavors. Recent shows have made use of nightclubs (Unmaking Toulouse Lautrec) or dining rooms (A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream) to enhance or immerse the audience in stories have helped create memorable theatrical experiences; last year’s dinner theater-oriented Love’s Labour’s Lost earned a Drama Desk Awards nomination in the “Unique Theatrical Experience” category. And the McKittrick Hotel is home to one of the longest running immersive theater productions, Sleep No More. However, sometimes merely matching the mood of a play to a venue doesn’t necessarily make for a “special” spectacle. Such is the case with the use of another portion of the McKittrick, The Club Car Pub, in the new American revival of The Woman in Black: A Ghost Play in a Pub, directed by Robin Herford and adapted from Susan Hill’s 1983 novel by playwright Stephen Mallatratt.
Hill’s gothic ghost story was first produced as a play in 1987, then in two subsequent film adaptations (the first in 1989, the second in in 2012). The play, which quickly moved to the West End, has been running continuously for 30 years, the second longest running play (only The Mousetrap lasted longer) in the history of the West End.
Set in a small English coastal village, The Woman in Black is the story of a lawyer who experiences the supernatural while executing the will of a deceased client. At her funeral he sees a mysterious, unsightly woman dressed all in black. When he asks residents about her they refuse to discuss the matter. Upon sorting through his client’s papers, he discovers the unsettling secret of this strange woman. Naturally, as all such stories go, it turns out the woman, in a difficult family situation that involved having a child out of wedlock, had experienced a horrible illness on the heels of a tragedy that killed loved ones. Immediately following her death, she returns to the village as a spectre dressed in black, a harbinger of horrible things that happen to the locals. It’s as cliché as ghost stories get.
Like most gothic horror, the overly dramatized and scarcely believable ghost story is less important than the suspense and dread imparted to the audience. This clearly is the reason why setting the play in the McKittrick’s rustic and seemingly age-worn pub is so ideal. The problem is that it’s not really an ideal venue for a two hour play, nor are the restaurant chairs the audience is forced to squirm on for the duration. But that doesn’t mean the piece is without its charms.
Constructed as a play within a play, The Woman in Black draws the audience in subtly. Arthur Kipps (a masterful David Acton) is attempting to tell his story, but “The Actor,” cleverly played by Ben Porter, persuades him that he can play the role better, so he becomes Arthur. Arthur, meanwhile, plays all the incidental roles. It’s a little confusing, made even more so by the venue’s less than ideal acoustics. Designer (presumably of costumes as well as stage) Michael Holt, Lighting Designer Anshuan Bhatia and Sound Designer Sebastian Frost combine to create a perfect mood for the subject matter. But the problem is that it’s all mood and very little substance.
Like haunted houses at Halloween, staged horror stories rely on a very rapt audience. There are several “Boo!” moments that might be effective in more intimate settings, but simply feel flaccid here; simply screaming or exclaiming loudly is not actually scary, just jarring . . . and annoying. Rather than feeling drawn in by a scary story, much of the audience seemed to be rolling its eyes. The narrative feels too much like we’re sitting around a campfire with boy scouts telling ghost stories that don’t actually frighten us. In an era when we can flip on the ID channel and watch true stories about “The Killer Next Door” or any number of exposés on actual murderers, quaint little ghost stories carry very little weight. Once upon a time The Woman in Black might have represented a spine tingling night in the theater. But now, at least in this production, it’s just a long story with some quaint local color.
The Woman in Black: A Ghost Play in a Pub. Through April 19 at The McKittrick Hotel (530 West 27th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues). Two hours, 10 minutes with one intermission. www.mckittrickhotel.com
Photos: Jenny Anderson