‘Grey House’ on Broadway serves up frights but no bite
The Daily Beast
June 1, 2023
“Grey House” on Broadway is a ghost-meets-horror story that—despite the odd, delicious fright—never quite delivers on all its clanking, creaking, and frantic weirdness.
One of the great, not-talked-about-enough joys of various holiday times is the public service that the Syfy Channel does. It does not spray viewers with schmaltz and weepy goodwill. Instead, it serves up old episodes of The Twilight Zone. They run day and night, and—rather like the endless joys of The Golden Girls—sometimes you alight upon one you haven’t seen before. But again, like The Golden Girls, it doesn’t much matter if you have; they are engaging stories, with big ’60s themes and obsessions underpinning their wacky, supernatural window dressing—like the insidious rise of technology, invasion (so many UFO/aliens!), authoritarianism, and the place of the individual set against the apparatus of the superstate.
Grey House on Broadway (Lyceum Theatre, booking to Sept 3), directed by Joe Mantello, feels a bit like of one of those episodes, except unfortunately without the enforced economy of a half-hour time slot, with dashes of gothic ghost story, hillbilly horror, and Misery (and—very niche, for this Knots Landing fan—elements of the “Three Sisters” haunted house episode) mixed in.
This puzzling, undercooked, but still arresting play, set in 1977, knows and accords to the genre conventions from whence it derives. Its biggest laugh erupts at the beginning when Max (Clare Karpen, standing in for Tatiana Maslany who’s been off-sick, delaying the opening) and Henry (Paul Sparks) enter an isolated cabin in the woods as a snowstorm rages outside. They have crashed their car. This is the only place for miles with its lights on (you know the score!). Henry’s ankle is busted. As they come into the house, and survey its general grimness, Henry says: “I’ve seen this. All this. I‘ve seen this movie.”
Max asks: “What happens?”
Henry: “We don’t make it.”
Well, that turns out to be an unsurprisingly spot-on prophecy. Inside the house are a group of girls, vaguely feral, vaguely spectral, and all questioning, led by Marlow (an excellent, hard-gazed Sophia Anne Caruso), and also including Bernie (Millicent Simmonds), Squirrel (Colby Kipnes), A1656 (Alyssa Emily Marvin), and a little boy (Eamon Patrick O’Connell), who is mute and without any of the little girls’ hard and quizzical edges. The busted ankle is the harbinger of all the bad things for Henry, as he predicted; his de-personning begins immediately with being called Hank by all the girls.
Max also seems to be in danger, surrounded by these strange children, and observed with just as much hostility by Raleigh (Laurie Metcalf), who seems to be the girls’ mother, but also seems to be not—in which case what is she? Metcalf’s curdling face, her resting face of utter horror, her occasionally caustic asides, and bug-eyed outbursts—for fans, a welcome reminder of Jackie from Roseanne—are their own mini-acting masterclass.
Inside a fridge, which magically changes contents, are, most memorable, bottles and bottles of clear and yellowish liquid, which this audience member immediately assumed was something a lot more sinister than moonshine (a suspicion later proven correct). Henry, simultaneously becoming sicker and more dependent on the moonshine, encounters a ghost (we assume) called The Ancient (Cyndi Coyne) in the dead of night.
He also encounters one of the girls in one of these nocturnal plot break-outs, but it doesn’t seem to be him anymore. Slowly Henry becomes different people, not-Henrys if you like. Are these fever dreams? Is it the not-moonshine? Is he being poisoned, driven mad? (Eventually, Henry becomes a history-spanning set of multiple abusive male identities.) An unseen basement really does seem to be an entrance to hell. The girls play strange games and sing strange songs. Phones ring even though the lines have been cut. People suddenly appear out of the shadows. Natasha Katz’s lighting and well-timed blackouts help elicit some thrills.
If there was a Tony Award for creaking, Grey House would be the sole contender. These groans (fine work from sound designer Tom Gibbons) issuing forth from Scott Pask’s plausibly nightmarish set suggest unquiet spirits and human terror trapped behind every joist. It sounds like the whole structure will ultimately crumble right before us. It suggests a property cannot bear the weight of its own trauma.
And yes, Levi Holloway’s play has its shocking and gross moments—there’s one gory tableau at the end which, as any horror movie fan will know, simply must happen after all the baiting to get us there. But the play also aspires to be a psychological thriller about childhood, loss, and abuse.
Unusually, but actually very helpfully, an email from the production landed after this critic had attended the play explaining what Grey House was really about. That is a first for this critic and—while welcome in this instance—perhaps not a good sign. If you have to send explanations of a play, it suggests some awareness within the production that the play is not being understood. This critic will not reveal the contents of that email—spoilers and all that—but the production itself does not make itself as crystal clear as the paragraphs later explaining it. That is not to say a bad time was had, but rather, for good and ill, Grey House is the strangest show on Broadway.
The actors work admirably hard in its quirkily baffling folds, but the story sticks and stops and starts and eventually disappears into itself. It’s not that you aren’t tense in your seat for the duration of Grey House—you really are—but all the teasing and foreboding glares and there-be-terror-in-these-parts signposting begin to grate. The payoff is more, “What the f— was that?” or “All that for this?” The show doesn’t execute its landing, which itself feels like one in search of any runway going.
It’s hard to write about why Grey House ultimately irritates rather than thrills without revealing plot points, and how explanations for what we have seen are conveyed (not adequately). But it did take me back to The Twilight Zone. Here on stage is a world before us with elements of the real and supernatural and unreal that have somehow collided. But the final, very human decision of Max should root the logic of the show. It does not. It is one which is not really explained or made psychologically and emotionally plausible. It has a feminist, maternal root to it, sure, but it simply doesn’t scan after what we have seen and what she has seen.
Even if you finally understand who the girls are and what they have been through, and what they need so desperately, the thing you have been internally screaming at Max and Henry all the way through— as in so many horror movies, “Get out of there somehow, you fools!”—goes not just unheeded, but stupidly, passively unheeded. Like much in Grey House, its final seconds are puzzlingly bonkers—and, rather like the great show itself, we are left suspended in the Twilight Zone.