From the very beginning of Grey House, there’s obviously something very odd going on in the titular cabin in the woods, a house full of unsettling, or maybe unsocialized, children and adolescents. They claim to be sisters, but they don’t seem anything alike. Squirrel (Colby Kipnes), with her mop of snarled hair and a demeanor alternately dreamy and feral, is secreting tools into the basement, pulled from drawers that open on their own. Marlow (Sophia Anne Caruso), bristles with sharp edges, daring you to challenge anything or everything she says. Bernie (Millicent Simmonds), who is Deaf, coolly appraises the scene around her and offers commentary in sign language that only her family can understand. A1656 (Alyssa Emily Marvin), Bernie’s most frequent interpreter, tells it like is with unadorned honesty. And the mostly silent Boy of many names (Eamon Patrick O’Connell) plays quietly by himself. Raleigh (Laurie Metcalf), their mother, doesn’t seem to have any real authority over these “willful creatures.” They feel a little like Peter Pan’s Lost Boys, a group of abandoned and damaged girls building their own society in which they will never grow up–and a little like Joel Schumacher’s vampiric Lost Boys. The question is, are they trappers or trapped?
In a blizzard, young marrieds Henry (Paul Sparks) and Max (Tatiana Maslany) run their car off a road. It’s 1977, so nary a cellphone nor an Uber is to be found for rescue (though Levi Holloway’s script keeps the play and the inhabitants of the house so effectively suspended outside real time that I spent a good while thinking Rudy Mance’s costumes for Max and Henry denoted retro hipsters; I may have lived in Brooklyn too long). Henry is injured; there’s no working phone at the Grey House; the storm is a once-in-a-century blizzard, and they’re stuck till the storm passes.
It’s a classic horror movie setup, of course, and Holloway, director Joe Mantello, and little tricks in Scott Pask’s set, Natasha Katz’s lighting, and Tom Gibbons’s sound design work hard to keep us not entirely sure whether we’re landing in the weird-but-natural or the supernatural. Are these strange backwoods folk who’ve gotten lost in their own insularity, or is something darker going on? Are Max and Henry going to end up saved, murdered by a moonshiner to protect her secrets, or dragged down into “the gaping mouth of hell” in the house’s basement? It’s hard to know what to take as reality, what as hallucination, what as dream, what as the audience’s own misapprehension of the quick glimpses we get: Are the weird noises and flickering lights and things glimpsed out of the corner of the eye tricks of the storm? Are there really jars of moonshine that keep appearing and disappearing in the refrigerator? Is the way that sound and dialogue seems to echo and repeat a piece of nonrealistic playwriting, or a side effect of the moonshine they’ve given Henry as a home remedy painkiller for his broken ankle, or a fever dream Henry is having? But it quickly becomes clearer and clearer that something is deeply off here, and that whatever hand of fate brought Henry and Max to the Grey House, these girls have plans for them. To say much more would tread into spoiler territory quickly–plus there are definitely elements of the plot that only add up in dream logic. (For instance, Cyndi Coyne’s character the Ancient, a darker and older doppelganger for Squirrel with blanked-out eyes and an even twitchier physicality.) Which, of course, is not uncommon in horror movies; sometimes style really does top substance, but somehow it’s easier to handwave past those things when you’re not in the room with the people asking you to believe them. There are jump scares here, sure, but they feel almost obligatory; there was only one or two bits of business where I felt the trick genuinely added to the whole.
Despite the heavy acting hitters at the top of the bill in the three adult roles (Metcalf, Sparks, and Maslany—though I saw Maslany’s understudy, Claire Karpen), the play hinges on the excellence of the young ensemble, and Mantello molds them into a coherent unit while still giving each her own gravity, and allowing the tenderness they show for one another to be the bedrock for them all. Sophia Anne Caruso’s Marlow may owe something to her time in Beetlejuice, but she’s bringing a genuinely dark intensity. Colby Kipnes as Squirrel is a chaotic whirlwind. Alyssa Emily Marvin’s A1656 brings sweetness with a manic edge, and Millicent Simmonds’s Bernie seems to be tamping down a fiery core of rage. Which is not to discredit the adults in the room–Metcalf finds a weary humor paired with pragmatic strength in Raleigh; you can feel Karpen thinking on her feet as Max tries to rational-problem-solve their way out of this madness; and there’s no one better than Sparks at the damaged-masculinity cocktail of menace, malice, and sweetness. (Henry has a motive-dump of a speech near the end that Sparks comes far closer to imbuing with actual feeling than the writing should allow.) But there’s not a lot of nuance or depth to any of the characters. The girls, and even to a certain extent Metcalf, can compensate for that by the sheer weirdness of their environment. But Henry and Max get nothing more than a few shared catchphrases and bits of backstory that, especially in Max’s case, don’t add up to a character. I think Holloway and Mantello want them to be both archetype and person, but they don’t entirely work as either.
Similarly, Grey House as a whole sometimes seems to get trapped between the all-too-human horrors of the murderer, the rapist, the abuser, and the grand guignol horrors of the haunted house. The thing that was so unsettling about The Pillowman–the most scared I’ve ever been in the theater–was how terribly plausible it all felt. A really good piece of horror leaves just a little prickle of doubt after you leave the movie theater or close the book—a little fear that it could creep its way into your world a little. I enjoyed Grey House while I was watching it, but I could feel it dissipating even as I walked through Times Square.