Paul Sparks On Bringing a Scary Rarity To Broadway With the Horror of ‘Grey House’

“I call it a fever dream,” the actor says of the cabin-in-the-woods thriller. “There aren’t a lot of plays like this that end up on Broadway."

The cast of ‘Grey House’: Sophia Anne Caruso, Laurie Metcalf, Eamon Patrick O’Connell, Tatiana Maslany, Alyssa Emily Marvin, Paul Sparks, Millicent Simmond (from left) MurphyMade

It’s not easy tiptoeing through the tulips surrounding Grey House without stepping in some kind of Spoiler Alert. It’s so far off the beaten Broadway track and the Spoiler Alerts are so plentiful. 

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True to most horror yarns, it begins on a dark and stormy night when a blinding blizzard—and a telltale deer—provokes a car crash on a remote Oregon road. The driver (Paul Sparks) emerges quite bloody, with a broken ankle; his fiancee (Tatiana Maslany) is unscathed yet worried. 

Off in the distance, they spy what they mistake for a safe haven. That’d be the abode of the title, a rambling old farmhouse very grim and very grey, with walls that creak when the blizzard blows and “a gaping hole to hell’ in the basement. Five grieving, mostly mute, knife-wielding kids and their adult “minder” are the sole inhabitants.

At first, the strangers who invade their home are treated with courtesy, but, as the winter drags on, a sinister side surfaces, and it’s not a pretty sight.

Sparks suspects his major attraction to Grey House is the fact it’s a scary rarity on Broadway. There are few plays around that steer the audience into the unnerving unknown as this one does. Maybe it’s the famous failure of Moose Murders and other cabin-in-the-woods disasters that keep playwrights at bay. Whatever, the thriller genre is something of a lost art on Broadway.

Grey House—which is written by Levi Holloway, directed by Joe Mantello and outfitted with Tony repeaters like the inestimable Laurie Metcalf—is a game effort to remedy all of that. 

Paul Sparks Jeremy Daniel

“I call it a fever dream,” proffers Sparks, himself a five-time Drama Desk nominee. “It’s poetic and more than a little secretive about what, exactly, everything means. It’s always trying to stay ahead of the watcher and, at the same time, provide a visceral experience for the audience.

“You may not always notice what’s going on, but you know something is going on. I like that. 

“There aren’t a lot of plays like this that end up on Broadway. I think it’s good for audiences to have this experience—to see how big the umbrella can be for Broadway.”

For Sparks, the weirdness began with the first reading. “Like a lot of people, my first reaction was ‘What?’” he admits. But he was struck by the density of Holloway’s writing. “He clearly knew who these characters were. Even though it wasn’t spelled out, I could tell they were going through something that the writer had arranged.” And talking with both the writer and director, the play started to make sense. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to see if we could actually do this?’”

Grey House is very much its own thing, despite echoes of horror films like Children of the Damned and Children of the Corn. For the Stephen King enthusiasts in the cast—and you almost had to be one to audition for Grey House—there’s an authentic kinship: Metcalf did a Broadway edition of King’s Misery, and director Mantello got his motor going for this by viewing the King-Kubrick classic, The Shining

Sparks put in two seasons on Hulu in King’s Castle Rock and did a couple of audiobook readings of his stories (one of which, Billy Summers, was recorded “during a quarantine in Canada”) .

“For a lot of people, Grey House felt like something that we had never really done before,” Sparks remembers. “I guess the closest thing that I ever had to it was the Tracy Letts play, Bug.” 

For that, Sparks met Michael Shannon when he replaced Shannon in the show. A friendship between the two actors was formed, and they have since collaborated on five film projects (Mud, The Night of, The Missing Person, Waco, Midnight Special), two plays, and, for television, Boardwalk Empire

In the latter, Sparks has received considerable acclaim playing gangster Mickey Doyle, who, avers the actor, is based on a real person—one Nicky Duffy, a gangster in Philadelphia. “A lot of the hijinks that I got into on the series were based on events that Duffy managed to pull off.”Currently, Sparks and Shannon are together again in a film marking Shannon’s movie-directing debut, Eric Larue, which is to go into national release after it premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival on June 10th. “It takes place in a small town that has suffered a school shooting. This is kinda the aftermath of that. The town is trying to heal, and I play a local minister.” 

Eric Larue is not Sparks’ first ministerial time at the rodeo. He shaved six years ago and went to London to play Reverend Billy Graham in The Crown series. “That was quite an experience,” he remembers. “Initially, I didn’t know that much about him, but, when I started to find out stuff about him, I realized that he was a pretty interesting and complicated guy—and fun to play.”

Because Sparks’ pursuit of good roles is practically global, it’s easy to forget he’s been a New York resident for 30 years, never far from Broadway or Off-Broadway. Grey House happens to be his first time back on stage since he did Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo with Robert Sean Leonard and Katie Finneran five years ago. He’ll be the first to tell you, “It’s great to be back. My heart is really in theater. I prefer it to everything else. If I could just do theater, I would.” 

 

Paul Sparks On Bringing a Scary Rarity To Broadway With the Horror of ‘Grey House’