In 1910, on the Lower East Side of New York City, the good-natured but troubled Simon in his late 20’s is grieving for his mother who died a week ago. Staying with him in the seventh floor tenement apartment he grew up in is John a long-lost childhood friend that he reconnected with at her funeral. Across the airshaft, Simon talks to 10-year old Grace across their windows. Also around are Grace’s mother and her friend and neighbor who are both feisty laundry women.
Newspaper accounts of missing and murdered children are discussed amidst mundane activities. Revelatory details about the characters emerge as the plot becomes more shocking. The action shifts from the tenement to the streets of the area and to the woods.
Mr. Farmer has crafted a suspenseful and gripping tale based on the reality of child abduction with mythical overtones. The dialogue is very fine and is evocative of the era. The intriguing script has been tremendously elevated by the superb production it has been given that is comparable to visiting a Halloween haunted house.
The audience sits on all four sides of the theater with its black walls. In the center is a slightly raised platform where scenic designer Andy Yanni’s richly detailed tenement apartment is presented. One side of it is the bedroom and the other side is the kitchen, with windows dividing them. Therefore, members of the audience do not see entirely all of the action at all times and that is creatively compensated for. Up in the corner is a shuttered window where Grace appears. There are ladders the laundry women climb to hang garments on the clothesline that runs across the top of the theater.
The original score by composers Mike Brun and Chris Ryan is suitably eerie. It includes tunes for children’s songs and is played live on a piano in the distance onstage. Mr. Brun and Mr. Ryan also are the musical directors.
Josh Millican’s sound design includes a number of ominous effects. Christopher Bowser contributes greatly to the scariness with his accomplished lighting design. That the cast looks like they’re living in 1910 is due to the perfectly realized costume design of Daniel Dabdoub.
As in last year’s Clown Bar, director Andrew Neisler’s staging is a dazzling display of cinematic theatricality. Virtually the entire theater is utilized to create arresting images by precisely coordinating the efforts of the design team. There are compelling things to see and hear at all times. In addition, Mr. Neisler’s achievements are evident by the uniformly excellent performances by the ensemble.
Athletic, balding, bearded and intense, Daniel Johnsen is fascinating as Simon. Mr. Johnsen’s characterization poignantly and vividly conveys anguish and childlike optimism with his slightly singsong speech pattern and weary physicality.
As John, the charming Shane Zeigler terrifically employs a snappy New York delivery and bodily grace reminiscent of James Cagney during his early 1930’s Warner Brothers Pictures performances.
Separately and wonderfully together Katharine Lorraine and Claire Rothrock are often hilarious as the pair of gossiping laundry women. Ms. Lorraine and Ms. Rothrock’s great range is demonstrated by their other appearances as chorus figures billed as “Mothers.” With the bearing of classical actresses, they wander around in semi-darkness through fog carrying lanterns and delivering dramatic pronouncements.
Tahlia Ellie winningly plays the adolescent Grace with delightful girlishness as well as conveying deep emotions. Ms. Ellie avoids cloying clichés and gives a child performance of depth.
With nothing actually violent depicted, The Gray Man subtly relies on simple suggestiveness and bold stagecraft to reach its surprising and shattering conclusion.
The Gray Man (through October 18, 2015)
Pipeline Theatre Company
Walker Space, 46 Walker Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 1-800-838-3006 or visit http://www.pipelinetheatre.org
Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission