Review: In ‘Grey House,’ Broadway Gets an Expert Haunting

Four strange girls, somewhere between 12 and 200 years old, live in an isolated cabin in the woods. Don’t they always?

Marlow (Sophia Anne Caruso) is the alpha, bossing the others around — and also bossing the stranded outsiders, because of course there are stranded outsiders in a play that trades on the tropes of a million horror tales. In “Grey House,” the prime trope is coy creepiness. Of the small knife she occasionally brandishes, Marlow, who gives Wednesday Addams vibes, comfortingly says, “If I put it in your eye, it wouldn’t even hit your brain.”

Good to know — and basically true of the play itself.

“Grey House,” at the Lyceum Theater, is certainly an in-your-face assault, more in the manner of John Carpenter movies than anything seen onstage since the age of melodrama. It is so expertly assembled from spare parts by the playwright Levi Holloway and the director Joe Mantello that you may not notice, between the jump scares and the shivery pauses, how little it has on its mind. Something about cycles of abuse? The legacy of misogyny? Sure, let’s go with that.

But mostly let’s go with the freak-out fun of the four telekinetic weirdos and their den mother, Raleigh, played by Laurie Metcalf in a stringy salt-and-pepper wig that’s almost as frightening as she is. Raleigh is not very maternal; Marlow says she is their mother “sometimes.” Other than feeding them and untangling their tresses as if weeding a garden, she generally leaves them to their own devices.

At the start of the play, those devices include some kind of gas-mask contraption that an ethereal deaf girl named Bernie (Millicent Simmonds) is making. (Hint: It’s not a gas mask.) What Squirrel (Colby Kipnes) is making is even worse: a kind of tapestry of innards. (She is presumably called Squirrel because of her tendency to gnaw things like phone cords that if left un-gnawed would short-circuit the plot.)

Luckily, the fourth girl, A1656 (Alyssa Emily Marvin), is just making nice. She translates for Bernie and, when the outsiders arrive, calms them with good humor. Explaining her name, she admits that it may be unusual but “it’s no A1655.”

The outsiders, a childless couple, need calming because they’ve just wrecked their car on a requisitely dark and snowy mountain road. Max (Tatiana Maslany) was driving; swerving to hit a deer, she hit it anyway. The accident has left Henry (Paul Sparks) with his ankle mangled, or maybe his leg or maybe his soul — it’s a restless manglement, moving through him as the play’s 95 minutes tick by. In any case, Raleigh splints him up, and the girls give him moonshine as an anesthetic.

Well, not really moonshine.

“Grey House,” which comes to Broadway from Chicago, where it had its world premiere at A Red Orchid Theater in 2019, keeps its secrets as quiet as its shocks are conspicuous. Only gradually do we get any sense of how the marriage of Max and Henry was crashing even before the accident, or why the coven of girls, if not their minder, has such an interest in helping it come apart completely. By the time we do begin to put together a possible explanatory scheme, it’s too late to matter; the trappings of horror, if not any meaningful horror beneath, have scared the bejesus out of the psychological drama.

At least those trappings are superb. Though I’ve left undescribed the two other humans (at least I think they are humans) who fill out the cast, it gives nothing away to discuss the even-more-prominent title character. As designed by Scott Pask and lit by Natasha Katz, and especially as given voice by the sound designer, Tom Gibbons, the house seems to be the repository of feelings and history that everyone else is mostly sidestepping. It moans while they tease.

That teasing quality, though sometimes charming — and often, if you are a scaredy-cat, a relief from the hard-core jolts — is the giveaway that “Grey House” should not be taken too seriously, regardless of its allusions to real-world horror of the past and present. (Yes, the Holocaust gets a hat tip.) We know too much about the rules of the genre, how information and staging will be manipulated to scare and delight us, to give much credence to anything deeper. In that way, “Grey House” is like a jukebox musical, squishing familiar arias — gore, ghosts, what have you — into a chic and enjoyable if mostly empty new container.

Letting go of meaning in the theater in favor of sensation is a big ask today. The ambition of playwrights to speak directly to our times through emotional naturalism has largely wiped horror, mystery and their ilk from our stages. One of the last such plays to appear on Broadway was an adaptation of Stephen King’s “Misery” in 2015, starring Bruce Willis as an author of mystery novels and, as the psychotic fan who nearly nurses him to death, once again the great Laurie Metcalf.

So another thing that has to be said for “Grey House” is that it has given artists who want to explore the opportunities and particular language of an unfashionable form a rare chance to do so. Metcalf and the rest of the cast turn that opportunity into a meal; by investing in its clichés without condescension, they do much to de-cliché them.

But what makes the effort meaningful to artists — Holloway began thinking about the story after a family tragedy — may not make it meaningful to us. And though the theater is already a kind of haunted house, filled with odd beings and strange noises, horror may simply work better in a less live medium. When Max and Henry show up at the cabin, unaware that anyone is there, they look around at the spooky surroundings, listen to the wind howling, and somehow find it all so familiar.

“I’ve seen this movie,” Henry says. Which is the problem exactly.

Grey House
At the Lyceum Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.

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