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Theater review by Helen Shaw
If you could autopsy The Terrifying like a body—if you could lift its organs out and weigh them—you'd have trouble figuring out where the sickness started. Its heart, for instance, is strong. Julia Jarcho's latest play is, at its core, a blitzed Gothic thriller in which the titular (vaguely defined) monster terrorizes a Mitteleuropean village. We see the plot turns coming because the story is a mash of genre types (Jarcho was partly inspired by Nikolai Gogol's spooky tales) but the text keeps slewing into comedy. A young man (Jess Barbagallo) goes for a walk late at night: swoop, crunch, oops. A journalist (Pete Simpson) runs afoul of the pitchfork-toting townspeople, but the “crowd” is just a harried stage manager. The monster never appears—sound designer Ben Williams creates it out of earsplitting roars—but it manages to lay waste all the same. A schoolteacher (Simpson in a hat) goes mad with grief, the creepy jailer (Simpson in a wig) catches the creature's bloodlust, and his daughter (Kim Gainer) becomes our “final girl.” It's all the classic horror stuff. Just sillier.
Jarcho, who also directs, has spun a metaphysical conceit around her characters, putting the audience inside what turns out to be a B-movie. We sit onstage and look out at the Abrons Playhouse auditorium through a scrim. That space beyond fills up with the dead, who themselves seem to be watching a film of The Terrifying. On the page this is interesting, but on its feet the different modes create confusion. Is the goal black comedy? The wonderful Pete Simpson is hard-selling it as one, turning out three hilarious performances and a series of ridiculous accents. Is it “terrifying”? Well. Shows can be both comic and scary at once, of course—Jarcho herself wrote the brilliant Grimly Handsome, which managed the trick. But it needs delicate calibration. This is where execution muddies the issue. Jarcho's script asks for things (like a moon-white moth, lots of blood, and characters who are “suddenly suffused with peace”) that Jarcho as director can't provide. Her attempts to stage her own impossible demands (respectively: a purple light, a red light, some dazed expressions) feel underwhelming, even a bit lame.
The play's parts, which seemed so healthy separately, just won't make a functioning body go. The pace lurches; a late attempt to connect to New York goes splat. But I wouldn't tell you to run screaming into the night. Jarcho is a rare bird: In a theater scene generally uninterested in thrillers, she makes avant-garde horror. She is, with her team of crazy Igors, creating something new. When she nails the genre, she's unbeatable. But every mad scientist has one experiment that fizzles.
Abrons Arts Center. Written and directed by Julia Jarcho. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission. Through April 2.
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