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The Mystery Plays

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Second Stage is offering a reprieve from the summer heat and humidity by enticing theatergoers to the McGinn/Cazale Theatre, where they might be chilled the bone - or even the spirit - by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's new work, The Mystery Plays, which just opened there as part of the New Plays Uptown series. While the play is capable of sending shivers up your spine, it's less adept at keeping them there.

The Mystery Plays is strongly influenced by writings that plumb the depths of the unknown and the supernatural - the works of H.P. Lovecraft and The Twilight Zone are two very close models; there's even a Rod Serling-esque figure on hand in Mister Mystery (played by Mark Margolis). "We are all of us on a journey," he says at the outset, before presenting depictions of the two very different journeys comprising this two-act play.

The first, titled "The Filmmaker's Mystery," centers on independent film director Joe Manning (Gavin Creel), who's built his limited career adapting Lovecraft's stories for the screen. Joe's fate takes a strange turn when he accidentally disembarks a train just before a fiery accident claims the lives of all 57 passengers and crew. Joe's subsequent investigations lead him to believe he was chosen to remain alive for a higher purpose, which may involve helping put right the wrongs the people on the train, including the mysterious doctor Nathan West (Scott Ferrara) Joe met on the train, left behind them.

The second story, "Ghost Children," follows a young woman named Abby Gilley (Heather Mazur) as she attempts to come to terms with a dark part of her own past. She returns to Medford, Oregon to discuss with lawyers the fate of her brother Ben (Peter Stadlen), who was imprisoned sixteen years earlier after he gruesomely murdered their mother, father, and nine-year-old sister. In trying to reconcile her own feelings of guilt and anger, she starts reliving her earlier life and examining her previous mistakes in hopes of finding the strength she needs to forgive Ben and move on.

There are some nominal plot connections (Abby is Joe's longtime friend and lawyer; Joe offers spiritual aid to Abby at an opportune moment), but the two stories are linked by little more than the theme of exploration and discovery of self, which proves insufficient to sustain a cohesive evening of theatre. The weight and gravity of Mister Mystery's early proclamations (and the way Margolis delivers them) leads one to expect the two stories will come together in a more satisfying way than they eventually do, that the more cosmic connections between Joe and Abby will become dramatically important. Neither proves to be the case.

Some of Aguirre-Sacasa's character writing, particularly for Joe and Abby, possesses enough stark emotional clarity to suggest he's capable of spinning richer, more compelling stories from this material than he does. While there are a few moving moments and a handful of decent jokes, Aguirre-Sacasa relies heavily on first-person narration, which tends to dampen the play's dramatic impact and keep the audience at emotional distance.

The staging that director Connie Grappo has provided is often straightforward, declarative, and effective, but not capable of solving (or even camouflaging) the inherent difficulties in the text. At least Sandra Goldmark's set, a combination of curtains and metal frameworks, and S. Ryan Schmidt's lighting succeed at establishing the creepy, otherworldly mood the material cries out for.

Creel and Mazur blend perfectly into the atmosphere of the play, though Creel has some initial difficulties finding his footing as Joe. The other performers are much less central, but still good - if Margolis tends to push too much as Mister Mystery, he's better as a number of other authority figures in the play; Leslie Lyles, who made such a strong impression in last season's Roulette, scores some big laughs here as the matriarchal figures in Joe's life; and Ferrara and Stadlen also do quite well in their most prominent roles, as men touched by some degree of madness.

The establishment of parallels between the multiple roles each of the six actors plays is probably the most overly theatrical thing about this show. If too much of the time the play ends up feeling like an unsold pilot for a speculative-fiction TV series, there's enough potential drama in "The Filmmaker's Mystery" and "Ghost Children" to suggest they'd succeed as full works. Unfortunately, there's little in The Mystery Plays that proves any real necessity for the two to be played together.


The Mystery Plays
Through July 10
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
McGinn/Cazale Theatre, 2162 Broadway at West 76th Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.246.4422

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