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The Thin Place

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - December 12, 2019

Kelly McAndrew, Randy Danson, Triney Sandoval,
and Emily Cass McDonnel

Photo by Joan Marcus
What are we to do about Lucas Hnath? The gifted, youngish playwright specializes in small, easy-to-produce plays with small casts, and beyond that, he's all over the map. His The Christians surveyed traditional Christianity's struggle to remain relevant. Red Speedo was a bracing look at Olympic competition and the price of maintaining one's ethics. A Doll's House, Part 2, the most produced play in the United States last year, picked up where Ibsen left off and packed a punch about women's progress and lack thereof. Hillary and Clinton speculated, unspectacularly, on that couple's power dynamics. And his latest, The Thin Place, is about ... I'm just back from Playwrights Horizons, and I'm really not sure what. Hnath's interests are so wide ranging that he's impossible to pin down, and that goes double for whatever he's trying to say in The Thin Place.

He doesn't make it any easier for a critic by entreating in his program note, "I won't say more about where the play comes from or what it means. Best to watch it with a blank mind. The less you know, the better." How much to tell, then? Let's start with Mimi Lien's simple set, which amounts to two Queen Anne chairs, an occasional table in between, and a bare wall behind. Enter Hilda (Emily Cass McDonnell), with a cup of tea—thirtysomething, unassuming, and with a tendency to stretch out stories when she's not listening silently to other folks. She's talking to us, and the house lights don't go down till nearly the end, so don't do anything embarrassing. McDonnell's voice is a little grating, like Madeline Kahn crossed with cyanide, and her delivery doesn't vary much. Later, when Hilda is eclipsed by other, more hey-look-at-me characters, it's a relief.

Meantime, we have to listen to Hilda relate a rambling childhood memory of her late grandmother, who played a guessing game with her not unlike something you'd encounter in Derren Brown: Secret. (Hilda tries it herself with an audience member near the end, and I strongly smell a plant in the house.) She wonders if there's not some way she could keep communicating with Grandma; she's heard tell of a "thin place," where this world and the next intersect. The search for such a place leads to a not-always-comfortable friendship with Linda (Randy Danson), a mystic with an unidentifiable accent from the British hinterlands. Derren Brown-like, Linda's up front about the trickery she deploys: "I claim to know nothing," she posits, which comes out "Ah klem to knew noothin."

Danson is appealingly forthright and vinegary, and Linda is more interesting than Hilda. Her friends, not so much. Hilda starts getting invited to Linda's get-togethers, full of good wine and food and less good talk, where Hilda meets Linda's cousin Jerry (Triney Sandoval, doing Jonathan Hadary-Danny Burstein casual niceness), a talented conversationalist especially when lubricated with liquor, and her rich friend Sylvia (Kelly McAndrew), an intriguing mix of benevolent and selfish.

More small talk, about the downside of charity and American guilt complexes. Linda and Sylvia fight, exit, reconcile offstage, and reenter like nothing's happened (and nothing has). Hilda tells a long, spooky story about finding her mother in a debilitated state last Christmas, which is followed by a spookier phone call. Linda and Hilda visit Hilda's mother's boarded-up house, where they have a falling out. Creepy things happen. Hilda, unassisted by Linda, tries to contact her mom. Protracted silence. Maybe she reaches that thin place, maybe she doesn't.

The reason I'm describing all this in such detail is to convey how far Hnath has veered from the lofty heights and pointed storytelling of A Doll's House, Part 2. He's writing about the supernatural, surely, and how belief systems flower or crumble when abetted by the perception thereof, and the fragility of friendships. All worthy topics, but The Thin Place is so static and fragmented, and nobody else onstage can match Linda for tangy discourse.

The staging is mostly folks sitting or standing and talking, and director Les Waters, to whom Hnath dedicated the piece, hasn't much to do but establish the characters' relationships to one another and move bodies around, until the spookiness quotient increases. He does do creepy well, and the protracted silence in Hilda's mother's house really is pin-drop silent, as the audience ponders what otherworldly forces may or may not be at work.

The Thin Place, then, does work up into an effective ghost story, after lolling around relating this anecdote or that political viewpoint or this rift in two women bonding. But what else is Hnath trying to tell us? Not, from all evidence, much.

The Thin Place
Through January 5, 2020
Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues, New York
Tickets online and current performance schedule: TicketCentral

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