Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is a young writer on the rise. He’s written a slew of plays, but his real love seems to be the comics. He’s written them (The Fantastic Four) or worked on them as musicals (most notably, revisions to the book for Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark, which allowed that show to end its troubled record preview period and open to halfway decent reviews).
ion Theatre likes to catch playwrights on the way up, and it has chosen Mr. Aguirre-Sacasa’s first published work, The Mystery Plays, as its vehicle. The result is a bit of a bumpy ride.
Mystery plays were medieval pageants that were acceptable to church authorities because they were moral fables based on Biblical tales. Mr. Aguirre-Sacasa’s mystery plays are also moral fables, but his Bible is the horror genre itself, as taken from its most populist master practitioners: Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone,” Alfred Hitchcock, H. P. Lovecraft, and Stephen King.
The two one-act plays are connected by one character (who has a minor role in Act 1, but who takes a major role in Act 2). They are also connected by the Mystery Man (a stylish John Polak) who narrates both stories in the manner of Mr. Serling. And, because each of the six actors plays multiple roles, there are some qualities of characterizations that resonate between the two plays.
The first play, subtitled “The Filmmaker’s Mystery,” is by far the more effective. Joe (Ethan Tapley), a young gay filmmaker who specializes in horror, is riding the train from Providence, Rhode Island, to Newport News, Virginia, for a holiday visit with his family. He is joined on the trip by Nathan (Benjamin Cole), an attractive and assertive man about his age.
Almost immediately, Nathan not only begins to flirt with Joe, but his manner violates both Joe’s physical and psychological boundaries. Joe is attracted to Nathan, though, and after making a date with him for New Year’s Day, Joe heads off to the café car to get each of them a beer. When the train makes a stop, Joe feels compelled to step out on the platform and is dismayed when the train departs without him.
Getting on the next train, Joe learns that the one he was on has derailed, killing a number of people. Here’s where the story moves into the realm of the supernatural, resulting in an ending that only comic -book horror fans could love. What leads up to that ending, though, is a lot of sharp writing with humorous references to horror classics. And, Mr. Tapley and Mr. Cole’s chemistry keep engagement levels high.
The second play, “Ghost Children,” follows Abby (Gemma Grey), Joe’s attorney, as she travels to Medford, Oregon, her home town. Her brother, Ben (Nick Kennedy), was convicted of a brutal murder of their other family members, and some volunteer defense attorneys are asking for a new trial. Abby, who was present when the murders occurred, is a prime witness in the case, but she has not responded to any of Ben’s letters requesting her assistance. Under questioning, Abby relives the events surrounding the murders and manages to confront Ben as she comes to some realizations of her own.
This half is nearly the opposite of the first one. The writing is flabby, the performances are subdued to the point of becoming annoying, and the most interesting performances are coming from the supporting players (Mr. Tapley is less than ideally cast as Abby’s driver, but he nevertheless delivers a well-drawn characterization).
ion’s theatre is tiny (though, a recent acquisition of the adjacent building promises to allow for a more comfortable setting), but director Glenn Paris uses the space well for stories that are often shifting locales. Brian Redfern’s scenic design provides for playing spaces that can be changed by moving a few pieces of furniture. Karin Filijan’s lighting is appropriately dark and spooky, and Claudio Raygoza’s projections add to the feeling that Hitchcock’s ghost may have just paid a visit.
Horror junkies may find what they’re looking for here. For the rest of us, the bag is definitely a mixed one, and we are left holding it.