In an age where anyone with a smartphone has a special effects tool kit in their pocket, the low-budget horror film is experiencing a quiet renaissance, encompassing both Asian imports like The Ring and The Grudge series and unsettling domestic American creep shows like The Conjuring and Paranormal Activity series. It’s a lot harder to pull off that kind of genuine fright and surprise in live theater, especially in a small space without a Broadway-size special effects budget. Prince Gomolvilas’s The Brothers Paranormal wears its film influences on its sleeve, sometimes a little too heavy-handedly. In its first scene, MBA/fledgling paranormal investigator Max recycles the plot of the Thai horror film Dorm, claiming it as a story from his own childhood in order to sign a client who believe she’s being haunted. And that’s not the only obvious callback: there’s more than a little dose of The Sixth Sense, and the play’s malicious ghost bears quite a resemblance to the villain from The Ring movies. And while its special effects are pretty solid (designed by Steve Cuiffo, and when was the last Off-Off-Broadway show you saw with a special effects designer?), it’s not doing anything new with the material, horror wise–nor is it trying to. Because while there is evil, or malice, here, the play’s really much more interested in the human connections that underlie ghost stories—the loneliness of the living and the dead; the exhausting burdens of grief and depression; the grasp the dead still have on us.
Max (Vin Kridakorn), who’s recently had to return to his Midwestern hometown when his mentally ill mother, Tasanee (Emily Kuroda), and his alcoholic brother, Visarut (Roy Vongtama), had simultaneous crises, doesn’t really believe in ghosts. But Tasanee and Visanut do, so Max sets himself up as the frontman of a paranormal investigation business–one that isn’t going so well; six months in, they’ve yet to make any money. But Delia (Dawn L. Troupe) has come to Max specifically, because she thinks she’s being haunted not just by any ghost, but by the ghost of a young woman speaking Thai. Dawn and her husband, Felix (Brian D. Coats), left New Orleans just ahead of Hurricane Katrina and now, two years later, they’re still strangers in a strange land, too afraid to go back but not really able to settle in to this new place. Dawn has no doubt about what she’s seeing and experiencing; Felix, though he doesn’t entirely believe, desperately wants Dawn to be having a paranormal experience rather than a psychotic break, so he’s reluctantly agreed to max out their credit card to fund the investigation. But Max, in addition to not really knowing what he’s doing as an investigator, has some major unresolved family issues of his own, which will color his relationships with Delia and Felix, and his ability to see their ghost. Spoiler alert: the ghost (Natsuko Hirano) is real, or at least the audience can see her–and as Felix comes to believe that he’s her intended victim, real danger ensues.
The engine of the plot may be Max’s investigation of Delia’s ghost, but the heart of the play is Delia and Felix’s marriage, a rich, loving bond between two people who’ve survived losing everything but each other, a record collection, and a slot machine (long story). (The warmth of their relationship is helped enormously by Dawn Troupe and Brian Coats, the strongest actors in the piece, who give a grounded, pragmatic strength and wryness to characters who could easily seem a little too long-suffering and too good to be true. Coats, as a longtime paramedic who’s been a bystander to some of the worst things that can happen to a human being, is particularly good, mixing gentleness and precise politeness with a straight-shooting steeliness that you wouldn’t want to mess with.) And while Max may start out seeing Delia as a mark–his pitch has more than a little used-car salesman to it–he’s drawn to her, and to Felix, and ends up genuinely wanting to help them, and genuinely yearning for the human connection they represent.
Max is a hard character: he’s simultaneously completely enmeshed with, frustrated with, and distant from his brother and mother for reasons that I won’t spoil, but that become clear over the course of the play, and require a complexity in both acting and staging that Vin Kridakorn and director Jeff Liu never quite seem to get a confident handle on. (Their mental illness and substance abuse problems didn’t help, but some of the distance is baked in to the fact that he’s the much-younger, American-born child in an immigrant family, his father died when he was a toddler, he’s the only one without memories of their “homeland,” and he’s the one who got out and moved away.) And as his relationship with Delia and Felix evolves, so do his relationships with Tasanee and Visarut, all of which shift scene to scene. Kridakorn hits the right tone when playing Max as a desperate striver trying to put on the suit of a slick salesman, but then he doesn’t settle in to the play’s subtler, more emotional registers, and the shades of Max’s loneliness and struggles with his family and his history. The design elements don’t help with the tone, either: Hyun Sook Kim’s costumes and Ian Wehrle’s sound design are sometimes intrusively busy, while Sheryl Liu’s set feels laden with clunky furniture and Victor En Yu Tan’s lighting is generic.
In the end, Max and Delia find comfort in each other, their struggles with loss and grief not lightened, but their burdens slightly more comprehensible for being shared. Gomolvilas doesn’t ask you to come to any conclusions about the reality of ghosts, only to grapple with the way our belief in them, and our own inability to process trauma and loss, can affect us in mysterious ways. Horror, yes, but also a great deal of sadness.