Eerie and irritating in equal measure, Levi Holloway’s Grey House at the Lyceum Theatre dredges up the classic plot device of many horror films: strangers stumbling into a den of oddballs and suffering the consequences.
The couple that does, indeed, invade the eponymous domicile, Max and Henry (Claire Karpen – subbing for Tatiana Maslany – and Paul Sparks, both excellent) actually refer to this conceit and even joke that the results are always bad.
Sometimes this premise results in hilarity as in The Rocky Horror Picture Show and sometimes, as in Grey House, it causes unintended hilarity for its obvious stunts (faces at a window, smoke emanating from a scary basement) along with some gruesome imagery, too bloody to describe here; but suffice it to say Henry, whose left leg is injured in a snowstorm-caused car/deer collision, suffers in a ghastly manner. That the car was driven by his wife doesn’t help matters.
Grey House, set in 1977 for some reason, opens to the clang of harsh music and sounds of an ancient building creaking (music supervision by Dr. Martins and creepy sound design by Tom Gibbons). The sinister isolated cabin set designed by Tony Award winner Scott Pask is a character in itself, full of witty details and hints of a haunting past.
The purported, though oft absent, star of the show, is the great Laurie Metcalf as Raleigh, a dour, un-motherly mom. She is napping, curled up, on a couch surrounded by youngsters, four young-looking girls and one red-headed boy. One is at a table weaving a long, loose web that will figure in the plot later and the others jump about singing and dancing quite charmingly as they appear to assemble what looks like a gas mask.
In the middle of the stormy night Max and Henry enter when the room is uncharacteristically unoccupied and Max does what she can to treat Henry’s wounds. When the household descends on the poor, doomed couple, the extent of their weirdness becomes more and more evident.
The four girls are lead by the charismatic Marlow (Sophia Anne Caruso, terrifically bizarre), her long black hair giving her a Vampira look. The tall Bernie (Millicent Simmonds, a beacon of calm amidst the odd assortment) is deaf. Her signs are interpreted by A1656 (Alyssa Emily Marvin, sweetly calm until the end). (When asked about her name she says that it is better than A1655!) Squirrel, the tiniest of the four, is so named because of her habit of gnawing on things, like the telephone wire. (The bitten-through connection somehow doesn’t prevent the phone from ringing late in the plot.) Squirrel is skillfully played with a sweetness that belies her true character by Colby Kipnes. The Boy (Eamon Patrick O’Connell, displaying great self-assurance despite having only a few lines) is a sprightly presence throughout.
After splinting Henry’s lower leg, Raleigh, who disappears down into the basement for long sections of the play, feeds him “moonshine” from a fridge filled with jars of the stuff. This leads to Henry’s desperate need for the stuff which, of course, following the well-established rules of the horror genre, is not really liquor, something Henry will find out to his great regret.
A quietly pivotal character, The Ancient (Cyndi Coyne, brittle and subtly poignant) inadvertently reveals much about the nature of this Grey House and its place in the universe via her obvious “ancient-ness.” This is a place that warehouses lost people who defy nature and who must face the cellar of fate, or is it the doorway to Hell? We never know.
Joe Mantello’s clever direction keeps the actors and action (ritualistic movement by Ellenore Scott) totally non-condescending and only slightly campy. No, this cast is totally into the dark inanity of Grey House and its shtick.
Mantello is helped by Pask’s set, seven-time Tony Award winner Natasha Katz’s brilliantly evocative lighting and Rudy Mance’s period-spooky costumes which range from wispy nightgowns to oddly modern street wear. Katie Gell & Robert Pickens’ hair and wigs and Christine Grant’s makeup (including too-realistic wounds) certainly helped, too.
Grey House is frustratingly ambiguous but amusing and entertainingly frightening—although we are all in on the joke.
Grey House (through July 30, 2023)
Lyceum Theatre, 143 West 45th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.greyhousebroadway.com
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission
A frustratingly ambiguous but entertaining take on the strangers stumbling into an eerie mansion shtick.