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The Other Thing

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Samantha Soule and John Doman
Photo by Joan Marcus

A ghost hovers over The Other Thing, the chill-free thriller by Emily Schwend that just opened at the McGinn-Cazale Theatre as part of Second Stage Theatre's Uptown series, but it's not the one you think. Though one of the lead "characters" may (or may not) be a malevolent, mischievous poltergeist, it's a writer whose influence is most keenly and unsettlingly felt.

No, that would not be Kim, the journalist whose interviewing two self-styled ghost hunters propels much of the plot. I'm referring to Stephen King, the pulp-horror master extraordinaire who's spent most of the last four decades sending chills down the spines of fiction lovers and moviegoers. King is an expert at coating some social issue with a thin layer of supernatural and letting the results unleash themselves, and he's never better than when psychological and social terrors are colliding head on (think Christine, Carrie, or The Shining) and forcing us to rethink not only what we believe but how we believe it.

For much of the first act of The Other Thing, Schwend seems to be intentionally subverting that paradigm via a kind of Martin McDonagh or Conor McPherson strategy. On assignment with the hunters, father Carl (John Doman) and son Brady (James Kautz), Kim (Samantha Soule) expresses genuine fascination at their approaches, methods, and outlooks as far as tracking down the ghost an elderly client insists is haunting her barn. The small talk is casual, investigative, and earnest, suggesting that perhaps real ghostbusting is indeed at work here.

Quicker than you can say "Who ya gonna call?", Schwend reveals her true hand, and her real point, and most of what's interesting fades away like a vampire in the sunlight. To explore or explain much of it would be spoiling, well, everything, including the meaning behind the longest scene in the second act, when Kim returns home and tries to put together the splintered pieces of a relationship with the boyfriend (Bhavesh Patel) she left behind. But unlike with King at his best, there's little nuance to the truth here, and nothing even particularly spiritually unsettling about it; most of what's here is mighty shallow.

The only thing that sends a verifiable spike to the spook-o-meter occurs at the start of Act II, when someone (whose identity is left intentionally vague) tells a ghost story that suggests what the underpinnings of the more interesting narrative conflict at play really are. It's an old-fashioned formula, no doubt: one performer, onstage, speaking directly to the audience, in a tightly controlled pattern of light (the designer is Matthew Richards). But generations of children (and maybe some adults) have been scared senseless around campfires, or with flashlights turned against faces. Uncertainty, and leaving more questions than answers, is often the best way to fuel fears.

This brief scene's stripped-down excitement is real, and what should prevail in a play like this one. Unfortunately, neither Schwend nor her director, Lucie Tiberghien, can elicit it anywhere else. This is not the fault of the actors; all four are excellent, in fact, with Soule wielding a coolly disturbing secret (or two) in dealing with the men around her, whether as the innocent or the aggressor. (Just which attitude is the more accurate is one of the play's more compelling ambiguities.) And each of the male performers embodying an utterly convincing masculine, if not outright patriarchal, quality for her to play against. The set (by Kris Stone)—a blank wooden wall with just a couple of occasional accents—is a bit pedestrian for an evening that would probably benefit from being more amorphous, but all the other pieces are there.

For this to work, however, we must understand the stakes and accept that they're high enough to not only merit our attention, but capture it, and The Other Thing falls well short of that mark. When the real game is unveiled, and the guiding force behind it all, unmasked, it's tough to stifle a laugh—not the right reaction for a play that's ostensibly trying to keep you on the edge of your seats and operating at the edge of your wits. Rather than letting the relevance happen naturally, Schwend has so forced it becomes less a terrifying inevitability than an episode of Law & Order given a Gothic spin. Not everything needs to be ripped from the headlines. Some things are better off left there.

The Other Thing
Through May 31
McGinn/Cazale Theatre, 2162 Broadway at West 76th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: McGinn/Cazale Theatre

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