After pillaging Ibsen in A Doll’s House, Part 2 and lampooning the former First Couple for Hillary and Clinton, vaunted playwright Lucas Hnath’s latest piffle, The Thin Place is a Wallace Shawn-style talkathon aptly dedicated to the late magician Ricky Jay as it’s an exercise in flimflam. There is more craft and profundity in the first season I Love Lucy episode “The Séance” with its immortal lines, “Ethel to Tillie. Ethel to Tillie. Come in Tillie.”
Mr. Hnath’s cockamamie ghost story is performed for the first hour with the house lights on and then in darkness with flaring little red light bulbs in the background for its wan attempt at a spooky denouement. The varying wattage compounds the piece’s 90 minutes of pretentious pointlessness. It’s dim no matter how bright the lighting may be.
The black walled and black floored stage is set with just two golden wingchairs separated by a vintage small table. Hilda, a young woman enters, takes a seat and directly addresses the audience. We learn of her deep attachment to her late grandmother and about her mentally unstable mother who mysteriously vanished nearly a year ago from her New Jersey home. Hilda regularly visits and befriends Linda, an elderly English psychic who has transplanted herself to New York City where she self-admittedly fleeces the gullible seeking contact with their dead. Linda channels Hilda’s grandmother and they become close. This all takes 30 minutes of monologues and duologues with the two actresses mostly seated.
Then we get a 30 minute party sequence with Linda’s obnoxious cousin Jerry and friend Sylvia with Hilda in attendance. Backstories are imparted amidst superficial political observations and arguments ensue. Hilda begins receiving ominous phone calls from her missing mother. Instead of driving Linda home, she hijacks her to her mother’s deserted house for an inconclusive and muddled finale in the manner of The X Files. That’s all folks.
Emily Cass McDonnell originated the role of Hilda in the play’s Actors Theatre of Louisville premiere. The blonde and wide-eyed Ms. McDonnell’s stares, pauses and hushed recitations are quite practiced and suit the negligible material.
Exhibiting grande dame hauteur and crystalline diction, Randy Danson with her quiet intensity and playfulness makes the most of the role of Linda. Whether intended, Ms. Danson’s exaggerated breathing spasms incite welcome laughter.
With their staccato gangbusters vocal deliveries, Kelly McAndrew and Triney Sandoval appear to have wandered in from John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation as Linda’s boozy and loquacious relatives for no great effect.
With the cast seated a good deal of the time, director Les Waters’ staging struggles to invigorate the production. Less successful are the haunted house elements that don’t go anywhere any more than the play does. Mimi Lien’s spare scenic design is appropriate and achieves an eerie dimension. That’s enhanced by lighting designer Mark Barton and sound designer Christian Frederickson’s moody efforts. Oana Botez’s fine contemporary costume design solidly realizes the characters.
Earlier this year New York City’s Pan Asian Repertory Theatre presented a smart production of playwright Prince Gomolvilas’ gripping thriller The Brothers Paranormal, that while tackling the supernatural was thoughtful, funny and scary. It is possible to dramatize psychic phenomenon for the stage, but The Thin Place doesn’t come close.
The Thin Place (extended through January 26, 2020)
Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.playwrightshorizons.org
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission