Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
The Boy Detective Fails and The Hollow
Also see Susan's review of The Heir Apparent
While the two works seem very far apart regarding their subject matterThe Boy Detective Fails is a whimsical story of a former child detective coping with the mysteries of growing up, The Hollow a shadowy retelling of Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollowthey share a sense of elemental uncertainty that can be called "post-9/11" in nature. The first takes place in a New Jersey town where familiar things and people are vanishing for no apparent reason; the other recasts the story of the Headless Horseman as a consideration of xenophobia and religious fanaticism.
The boy detective of the title is Billy Argo (Stephen Gregory Smith), who became the hero of his town as a preteen when he began solving mysteries alongside his younger sister Caroline (Margo Seibert) and his nerdy friend Fenton (James Gardiner). However, an unsolved case and a family tragedy left Billy suicidally depressed; when he's released after 10 years in a mental institution, he has no idea what to do with himself.
Billy is not the only off-center person in his world. He gets a job doing phone solicitation for a company that sells lifelike fake facial hair; he lives in the same halfway house as the evil scientist who, decades earlier, kept trying to kill him (Thomas Adrian Simpson); he belongs to a most amusing support group; and he has an accidental encounter on a bus that leads him to a possible new friend (Anika Larsen). Even the remaining structures in town (scenic design by Derek McLane) are miniatures that keep shifting position.
Billy's adventures began as a novel by Joe Meno, who also wrote the book for the musical version with composer-lyricist Adam Gwon. The songs range thematically from the sweet duet "I Like (The Secret Song)" for Smith and Larsen, through the frayed razzle-dazzle of Billy's boss (Harry A. Winter), and Simpson's dark musings on evil.
As brought to life by director Joe Calarco, Smith gives a winning performance as Billy, with a shuffling posture and shyness that vividly demonstrate the dislocation of a child trapped in a man's body. Seibert shows Caroline's frustration and inability to cope with adult trauma; Simpson is a hoot as an elderly blowhard who remembers his hatred of Billy, but not the reasons behind it; and Evan Casey amuses as a criminal so grim, his name is "Killer."
The underlying question in Irving's story is whether or not the legendary Headless Horseman actually exists. In this version, the rational Ichabod doesn't believe, but several residents of Sleepy Hollow have gone missing over the yearsand, as far as the townsfolk are concerned, the disappearances have a lot to do with insufficient religious zeal and lack of obedience to the will of God.
Foster and Conner build tension by allowing the songs to weave through the dialogue scenes, seldom stopping for applause. Director Matthew Gardiner adds to the sense of inescapable doom through his tight control over the staging and performances.
While Ichabod is the most recognizable character, the moral and emotional center of The Hollow is Katrina Van Tassel (Whitney Bashor), the previous schoolteacher. In a vivid performance, Bashor demonstrates how Katrina finds herself torn between the intellectual freedom Ichabod offers and the familiar, if faintly threatening, love of Brom Van Brunt (Casey). Katrina's father (Winter) is the closest thing to a freethinker in Sleepy Hollow, while Bram's mother Henriette (Sherri L. Edelen) devotes her life to criticizing people for not following their religion as strictly as she would like.