Page 73’s world premiere of John J. Caswell, Jr.’s Man Cave is an exciting, riveting supernatural horror story. While at times it seems overwrought and overstuffed with too many issues, Taylor Reynolds’ production works beautifully holding our attention until the final moment. Its satisfying ending seems totally in keeping with the events that precede it and its ensemble of four is completely believable as they attempt to deal with seemingly overwhelming contemporary problems.
Inspired by the women who raised him in Arizona and road trips to his grandmother that passed through Sedona, famous for its unique energy, Caswell, Jr.’s play has an undeniable authenticity despite its dabbling with the supernatural. The play’s setting, the basement of a wealthy conservative Republican Congressman, is also inspired by the mansion previously owned by the late Senator John McCain.
Imaculada Delgado, a Mexican-American, has worked as live-in housekeeper for currently out-of-town Congressman Jeff Petersen and his family in Sedona for the past year. However, it is a job that the last few housekeepers have quit and it appears to be making Imaculada sick. She has also not yet recovered from a gastric bypass operation paid for by her employers. On a July night, during the Monsoon season in Arizona, her friends Rosemary and Lupita show up without warning. Rosemary is bruised and bloodied from the latest assault by her abusive policeman boyfriend and Lupita is looking for a safe house for them until they can arrange to get out of town. Imaculada puts them in her employer’s fully furnished man cave to keep them out of sight.
Rosemary is also looking for a place to do an exorcism on her boyfriend (she is carrying goat’s blood and a bottle of the boyfriend’s nail clippings.) When Imaculada reveals that the house is built over a Native American mass grave that has been ignored all these years, the stage is set for some weird goings on. An undocumented Mexican immigrant who is afraid that her daughter’s boyfriend will turn her in, Rosemary’s mother Consuelo, a former faith healer in her own country and who is believed to have psychic powers, arrives. It appears they are ready for anything that comes their way.
Each of the women is coping with a different contemporary problem and hot button topic: Imaculada’s son Fernando, a former convict, has been unable to find a job, while the corrosive, conservative views of her boss are things she tries not to think about. Rosemary has had to deal with beatings from the abusive boyfriend before this but has reached her limit. An undocumented immigrant, Consuelo, now in her early sixties, lives in constant fear of being picked up by Homeland Security. And, last but not least, Lupita’s ex-girlfriend Delfina has become a drug addict who is unreliable in many ways. It is almost too many issues for one play but they all seem to dovetail into Caswell’s paranormal story.
The supernatural elements are greatly aided by the production elements. Most effective is Michael Costagliola’s stunning sound design. Not only is there periodic thunder to go with the lightning, but there are continual thumps, knocks, and door slams. The whirring of the dumbwaiter as it descends from the upper floors comes into play, apparently on its own volition every so often. Other noises are heard as the exorcism reaches its climax.
The lighting design by Lucrecia Briceno is equally effective but obviously not as startling. Lightning is seen through the narrow basement hopper windows, as well as flood lights that appear when objects pass the building. The dumbwaiter lights up when it starts down, while the basement man cave is plunged into darkness on several occasions with no explanation. During the exorcism the room turns red as if by an otherworldly force. The attractive masculine abode created by the remarkable Adam Rigg (Fefu and Her Friends, Is God Is, Cullud Wattah, On Sugarland) reminds us that tonight the denizens of the room are all women trying to break free of male domination.
Under the direction of Taylor Reynolds, the impassioned acting of the ensemble of four is expert without going over the top, and each character is totally involved in her own problems. Annie Henk’s authoritative housekeeper Imaculada is a layered performance of character with both physical as well as emotional issues. Jacqueline Guillén brings to the brutalized Rosemary the intensity of someone who has been pushed too far and has made up her mind as to her final course of action. As her Mexican- born mother, Socorro Santiago is amusing as a middle-aged woman who has come to terms with the disappointments in her life, but happy to find herself in the U.S.A. Claudia Acosta as their friend Lupita is the voice of reason throughout the supernatural events.
John J. Caswell, Jr.’s Man Cave is an exciting evening in the theater combining a horror story with serious contemporary issues, while at the same time depicting many topical subjects of concern to women and particularly the Latinx community. The superb Page 73 production makes all of the play’s paranormal events believable as we are pulled deeper and deeper into the play’s complex plot. John J. Caswell, Jr. is definitely a playwright to watch in the coming years from the assurance that he already displays in his Off Broadway debut.
Man Cave (in person: March 1 – April 2, 2022; streaming: March 21 – April 2, 2022)
The Connelly Theatre, 220 E. 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.page73.org
Running time: two hours including one intermission