Levi Holloway’s Grey House, which marked its official opening Thursday night at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre, is creepy and spooky. It also has weightier objectives than scaring the, er, boots off you, which is why Atwood’s work in dystopian feminist parable comes to mind.
But apart from Laurie Metcalf’s enjoyable portrayal of an inscrutable mountain woman, and a set by Scott Pask out of the Grimms’ grimmest fairy tale, the play itself exists in a sort of gray zone — neither particularly terrifying nor profound. It belongs in that lesser rank of thrillers that whip up suspense by withholding vital information, the kind that requires gullible characters to take the bait and audiences to wait for clarification before the final bows.
Successfully stirring up horror on a stage is an elusive quest (Signature Theatre’s underwhelming revival of “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street” being a current example). I can count on one hand the times I’ve been intentionally and authentically dazzled by chiller theater: Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman” (2003), Jack Thorne’s “Let the Right One In” (2013), the original production of “Sweeney Todd” (1979). The devices of moviemaking are so much better equipped to awaken nightmares that theater’s efforts to make the skin crawl seem hokey by comparison.
For “Grey House,” director Joe Mantello recycles a few garden variety shocks — haunting figures at the windows, eerie noises, that sort of thing. And Holloway pokes some fun at the trendy Gen X tastes of Sparks’s Henry and Maslany’s Max. The play’s mechanics, too, include meta-theatrical winks at the genre. Still, the plot ties up the production in ponderous knots, and its potentially moving spin on the revenge play gets lost in murky moralizing.
The drama is less a whodunit than a whoizzit. The connection among the young women buzzing about (played with convincing adolescent insouciance by Sophia Anne Caruso, Millicent Simmonds, Colby Kipnes and Alyssa Emily Marvin), and alternately welcoming and menacing the guests, is a riddle you probably won’t be able to solve on your own. It’s fair preparation to say that the pain and grief circulating through the cabin, a kind of supernatural halfway house, are bonding agents for its inhabitants.
Metcalf, as always, knows how to take up the right amount of emotional space in a room: Her Raleigh, strong and hard-bitten, is a pleasing anchor for “Grey House,” even as we lose interest in its enigmatic machinations. Sparks and Maslany are themselves vivid presences.
Still, if you’re the type of person intent on cracking every code, your tolerance for “Grey House” will be limited.