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Theatre in Review: The Thin Place (Playwrights Horizons)

Kelly McAndrew, Randy Danson, Triney Sandoval, Emily Cass McDonnell. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Lucas Hnath's latest play is a ghost story -- or maybe not. Possibly it's an elegant fake-out, an exercise in the power of suggestion. Or maybe it's a serious consideration of the numinous, an attempt at piercing the diaphanous veil that separates this world from the next. Then again, it might be a load of entertaining hogwash, a manipulation ruthlessly designed, just for the fun of it, to make one's flesh creep. All I know is the simple sound of a ringtone made the audience jump.

It's difficult to isolate the moment when The Thin Place -- which starts out as beguiling, if apparently aimless, conversation piece -- becomes an expert raiser of shudders. We are introduced to Hilda, a mousy young thing who -- with her flat affect, faintly sullen manner, and deadpan whine -- barely seems to rate the term "adult." She has virtually nothing to say for herself - she has no apparent friends or family and she answers phones for a living -- but she is an acute listener, unsettling in her alert silence. Taking us into her confidence, she recalls how her late grandmother tried to train her in communication with the dead, so they could remain in contact even after the old lady's passing. You won't be surprised to hear that the effort was a thoroughgoing failure; still, there's something deeply unsettling about her tale. Emily Cass McDonnell, who plays Hilda, has been given a devilishly difficult task, but she adroitly takes us in, quietly suggesting that there is something very strange at the heart of this self-admitted wallflower.

Perhaps because of her experience with her grandmother, Hilda becomes friends with Linda, a professional medium. An émigré from the UK, Linda dispenses with the usual occult trappings -- don't expect a Ouija board, a tapping table, or even a room shrouded in darkness. She simply sits in her club chair and listens, waiting for the spirits of the dead to reach out to her; she reports her findings, crisply, as if translating for a non-English speaker. Linda's assurance is seductive and -- to the extent that she shows any emotion -- Hilda is smitten with Linda, becoming her close companion. Indeed, Hilda hopes that Linda will share some of her trade secrets and, at long last, teach her what her grandmother could not.

Except that Linda crushes Hilda's hopes, saying, "You do realize, don't you, that what I do is sort of a trick?" and adding, "What I do sits somewhere between the real and the unreal -- how, like, a metaphor works. You know what I mean." At this point, we certainly do. When Linda adds, "It's really not all that different from that so-called psychotherapy, except what I do actually works," the "uh-huh" uttered by Kelly McAndrew, as Sylvia, Linda's friend and benefactor, is corrosive enough to take rust off metal. Linda has many supporters: Sylvia provides her with cash, and Jerry, who is politically well-connected, has helped Linda with her visa problems, caused by the criminal charges pending against her back home. Linda is skilled at sitting pretty, appearing to be above it all, while the members of her retinue handle mundane details of living. Then again, if her routine is all for show, how to explain her bizarre spells, marked by episodes of guttural breathing, that hint at something inexplicable?

Randy Danson imbues this old fraud with such an aura of sweet reason that it is virtually impossible not to be taken in by her apparent charity and concern for others. Helping herself to cash and legal support even as she spins out pretty lies for her clientele -- basically, she reaffirms what they clearly already feel about themselves -- she almost convinces as a kind of saintly ambassador from the Other Side. And, believe me, she knows the territory: "In America," she says, "you all really believe -- deep down -- that you can be whatever you want to be, and that just strikes me as the most wonderful thing." She adds, "This is the birthplace of what I do -- all of the great spiritualists are Americans."

Is there some inherent gullibility in American culture? Is it linked to our city-on-a-hill myth? Do we secretly desire fake news? These and other troubling questions are implicitly raised in The Thin Place. Others include a discussion that pits the Ayn Randian pursuit of personal satisfaction against a life of renunciation and charity, and one that considers the techniques used by Hitler to seduce his audiences. By this point, one may be equally seduced and bewildered, captivated by the smart conversation while simultaneously wondering where it can possibly end up. During these set-tos, Hilda retreats into watchful silence, while Linda dominates, displaying a breathtaking cynicism mixed with motherly affection.

But Hilda has a ghost story to tell, and it's a real corker -- and then the phone rings.

After that, you're on your own; I will only add that the last fifteen or twenty minutes of The Thin Place is an assured exercise in psychological suspense, and it is only afterward that one realizes how expertly one has been set up. Credit is surely due to Les Waters, the director, for evoking an atmosphere of low-level dread and for handling a cast that includes Triney Sandoval as the skilled fixer, Jerry. Also credit Mimi Lien's bare-bones set design -- the upstairs theatre at Playwrights Horizons has been stripped of decorative elements -- which seems to declare that the play has nothing up its sleeve, and Mark Barton's lighting design, especially during an eerie climax apparently lit by a single red bulb. Oana Botez's costumes and Christian Frederickson's sound design are equally solid.

Wild horses couldn't drag the ending out of me, although I will note that at the finale the play seems to vanish in an instant, like ectoplasm. Still, ever since seeing it, I've been going back and forth: Is The Thin Place a serious consideration of the immaterial? Or an expertly designed spookhouse? I can't say. Then again, I'm still thinking about it. < b>-- David Barbour

(12 December 2019)

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