Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Jordan Harrison's Finn in the Underworld
Is a Bizarre Ghost Story

Also see Richard's review of A Thousand Clowns, and Cat On a Hot Tin Roof

Reed Birney
Berkeley Rep is currently presenting the world premiere of Jordan Harrison's incomplete Finn In the Underworld on the intimate Trust Stage. The playwright calls it a psychosexual gothic horror story and there are influences of Peter Quince from Turn of the Screw in this 85 minute no intermission production.

Finn in the Underworld opens with sisters Gwen (Lorri Holt) and Rhoda (Randy Danson) who must clean out their dead father's Victorian home in Missouri. Gwen, a suave very edgy person, has come from the Pacific Northwest to help her sister Rhoda who has stayed in the Show Me state. She is the no-nonsense sister who is very sensitive about her unmarried state. Both appear to have no love for each other. They are apprehensively awaiting a visit from Gwen's 20-year-son Finn (Clifton Guterman) who has had an ill-fated romance with one of his male professors.

Finn arrives as an overly antagonistic homosexual. Later he somehow morphs into a 13-year-old boy named Will when he descends into a bomb shelter built by the Grandfather during those turbulent Atomic scared days in the '50s. Shades of Henry James come into play here as we see scenes of Will who had a relationship with Finn's grandfather that was not spiritual. This morphing becomes very confusing as the playwright likes to play with the viewers' minds with his bits and pieces as things jump back and forth from morning to evening in the space of one day. Young playwright Jordan Harrison is not entirely successful in managing this difficult plot devise. In fact, in an interview with Berkeley Rep's literary manager and dramaturg Madeleine Oldham he says "I don't want to disorient the audience as much as reorient them. I feel like its okay to get lost for twenty minutes if where you end up justifies that journey". The horror is stretched very fine but you can't help wondering what is happening.

Berkeley Rep has given this drama an outstanding production, with a wonderful set by David Korins which consists of a spacious Victorian living room with gray black wallpaper. There is no furniture with the exception of a working Grandfather clock that is pertinent to the story. Cardboard boxes are scattered about the stage. The set moves forward as Finn descends into a fallout shelter beneath the house. The set even becomes two levels at the close of the drama. It is an amazing set full of ghostly sounds made possible by Darron West's sound design. The loud ticking of the clock and the real and exaggerated chime leave the audience gasping during the changing of scenes. Matt Frey's lighting is impressive with odd shadows coming onto the stage. The three artists have made this a scary and frightening psychosexual horror story.

Director Les Waters has also assembled an extraordinary cast for the four characters. Each displays character shifts with amazing skill. The characters could be straight out of Chekhov, Ibsen or Henry James. Clifton Guterman, who was memorable as Smike in the Cal Shakes production of Nicholas Nickleby, once again amazes the audience with his sparkling performance. His morphing from a 20- to a 13-year-old is superb.

Reed Birney (New York actor, won an Obie as the mysterious Dr. Sweet in the off Broadway smash Bug) plays the mysterious neighbor Carver who was Rhoda's childhood friend and then seems to be the ghost of the grandfather when in the basement of the old house. The sexual tension between Finn and Carver is hot and very riveting.

Lori Holt is outstanding in her portrayal of a mother worried about her son. Randy Danson is also excellent as the rural sister. Both characters briefly morph into children toward the end of the drama.

Finn in the Underworld runs through November 6 on the Berkeley Repertory Theatre's Trust Stage at 2025 Addison St. Berkeley. For tickets call 510-647-2949 or visit Their next production is Brundibar & Comedy on the Bridge with libretto by Tony Kushner, music by Bohuslav Martinu and Hans Krasa, and production design by Maurice Sendak with Kris Stone, featuring members of the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra. It begins on November 11 at the Berkeley Rep Roda Theatre on Addison St.

Photo: Kevin Berne

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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