Grey House | 1hr 40mins. No intermission. | Lyceum Theatre | 149 West 45th Street | 212-239-6200
In Grey House, a couple driving through a mountain snowstorm circa 1977 crashes and takes refuge in a creaky cabin full of spooky girls and their oddball mother hen. Early on, the man jokes that he’s seen this movie before. We all have. The main difference is a tub of buttery popcorn and a good jump scare or two. Here, there’s only the mounting dread that you’re trapped in a pretentious trauma-drama using horror tropes to diminishing effect.
Playwright Levi Holloway is certainly lucky. His 2019 shocker was plucked out of obscurity (a Chicago run) by producers and director Joe Mantello (Wicked), who give it a deluxe production filled with A-list actors: Laurie Metcalf, Paul Sparks, and Beetlejuice TikTok sensation Sophia Anne Caruso. (Tatiana Maslany is in the ensemble but, due to illness, was not at the performance I attended; instead, the warm and appealing Claire Karpen played Max.) Yes, Holloway sure won the lottery; audiences who pay for his pretentious pulp? Not so much.
In building his murky fable, the writer shamelessly raids horror classics: Stephen King’s confinement freakouts The Shining and Misery, most obviously. He mixes in J-horror girl-ghouls seeking revenge (The Ring). Lars von Trier’s Antichrist probably furnished marital angst. But besides aping a popular genre, what is the point of Grey House? As far as I can tell, its tedious 100 minutes depict a ritual purgation for young women killed by monstrous men throughout the centuries. When an unfortunate new couple arrives at the cabin, the man is tortured and sacrificed so one of the girls’ souls may depart. The wife of the man becomes the new caretaker/surrogate mom. (Metcalf plays Raleigh, the girls’ grumbly, outgoing caregiver.) There’s also a large, reddish quilt woven from flesh, and a process that (checks notes) milks the evil out of bad men.
That’s enough supernatural elements for three horror flicks rolled into one, as if a pileup of clichés somehow accrues depth. Holloway’s script is also full of campy winks at its precious ambiguities, as if Edward Albee had a subscription to Shudder and decided he could do that, dammit. The whole thing is dusted with feminism, lending it an aura of moral seriousness. A refrigerator opens to reveal shelves of mason jars filled with liquid. The jars, A1656 (Alyssa Emily Marvin) informs Henry (Sparks) contain, “The Nectar of Dead Men.” When Henry gets up in the dead of night to raid the fridge for this addicting substance, he is accosted by The Ancient (Cyndi Coyne), another horror staple: the elderly woman as grotesque wraith. Marlow (Caruso) is particularly obnoxious, fond of smug, cryptic one-liners. While getting to know Max, she casually remarks, “Our basement is the gaping mouth to hell. Is that okay with you?”
Don’t me wrong: theater should do genre. Bring on the sci-fi plays, the action-adventure musicals, the feel-good buddy comedies. But Grey House, whimsical and incoherent, flubs the genre test. A good horror story should have an internal logic that becomes apparent (or semi-apparent) to the audience. The Shining is about a hotel haunted by ghosts who are guilty of various crimes. Jack Torrance is trapped in the historic loop of horror. It makes dream logic sense. With Grey House, the world-building is both too literal-minded and not thought through in any convincing way. Why this house? Why these girls? Why do they eat so many eggs? I’m sorry to have missed Maslany as Max, the play’s putative protagonist, but the role is essentially passive and thankless, reacting to a series of bizarre events until the climactic, vague message: men do terrible things and the universe will have revenge.
While the cast labors mightily to endow the material with humor and humanity, the real star is the design team; their work is mysterious and spooky, and altogether ooky. Scott Pask’s cluttered cabin interior mixes homey with grisly, a looming, ice-barnacled roof with a gaping hole that seems poised to gobble up the inhabitants. Sound designer Tom Gibbons makes the house groan and croak, places eerie table saw noises in the basement, and when Mantello needs a hair-raising scene transition, he blasts bone-rattling instrumental music over Natasha Katz’s sudden blackouts. Elsewhere, Katz bathes the cabin with light that melts from naturalism to nightmare hues. Every element is lovingly perverse, down to the creepy doll downstage center, who you expect to stand up and deliver a monologue any minute. I’m genuinely surprised the standard-issue demon doll didn’t make the cut.