Let the Right One In
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Let the Right One In: Theater review by David Cote
This stage version of the 2004 Swedish horror novel and screenplay (both by John Ajvide Lindqvist) pulls off three rarities in the theater: presenting vampires as fully believable (not laughable) monsters, casting adult actors as plausible teens and scaring the bejesus out of an audience. I haven’t been this spooked on the aisle since The Pillowman blurred the lines between storytelling and violence. In fact, like Martin McDonagh’s best play, Let the Right One In is about kids in great danger but in a less manipulative way. It’s thrilling and terrifying, just like childhood.
Anyone who saw the gloomily brilliant 2008 movie (or its effective American remake) knows the setup: Young Oskar (Cristian Ortega) is constantly bullied at school by sadistic classmates. He drifts into wary friendship with new next-door neighbor Eli (Rebecca Benson), who seems to be Oskar’s age, but something’s not right about her. Perhaps it’s the way her affect lapses into dissociated deadpan or the feral, athletic way she twists around the bars of the jungle gym. Then there’s her smell: not quite adolescent B.O., more like rotting meat or wet dog. Oskar, kind by nature and in need of a friend, doesn’t judge. Which is both commendable and dangerous, since, through Eli, our timid hero will be introduced to a world of colossal horror and grace.
At heart, Let the Right One In is a gothic fable about different kinds of predation, from the pecking order of kids in a locker room to the unflinching brutality of wildlife. Jack Thorne’s script is lean and moves quickly, somewhat mitigating my sense that it might work better as a 90- or 100-minute piece than as a two-act drama.
John Tiffany and choreographer Steven Hoggett stage a swift, bravura production on Christine Jones’s unit set of ghostly birch trees standing on snowy ground. Chahine Yavroyan’s lighting and Gareth Fry’s sound contribute to the gathering mood of isolation, desolation and dread. Still, amid the calculated bursts of fright light and gouts of blood when Eli feeds, there are moments of tenderness and even humor. Some scenes from the film, particularly a climactic showdown at the pool, are difficult to render live, but Hoggett uses a gestural vocabulary that manages to be rigorously muscular and poetically abstract.
It’s not all just atmospheric design. Benson gives a performance of awesome vocal and physical versatility: angelic calm giving way to frenzied carnality, her voice that of a talking doll that has been stomped upon. It’s a fascinating role: Eli is neither boy nor girl, human nor animal. She represents fluidity not only of gender, but age, species and morality. She’s best friend and mortal enemy. In the end, Oskar is left to choose between a life of hunter or of prey.—David Cote
St. Ann’s Warehouse (see Off Broadway). By Jack Thorne. Based on the novel and screenplay by John Ajvide Lindqvist. Directed by John Tiffany. With Rebecca Benson, Cristian Ortega. Running time: 2hrs 20mins. One intermission.
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote