According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Haunted House

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

There are no multimedia screens, no experimental dance breaks, no tricky narrative surprises; compared to most new American plays, Daniel Roberts's Haunted House is positively "analog." Or at least, that's the word that Lucy (Diana Cherkas), a tech reporter, uses to describe the Dunn family--Cy (Jordan Charney), Peter (Jason Altman), and Wendy (Meghan Miller)--though in her distinctive lingo, she means this in a quaint, charming, and yes--"beautiful"--way. Her arrogant boyfriend, Moses (Jason Blaine), puts it more directly: "You guys are so fucking real; it's sort of disconcerting." All of these descriptions apply not only to the Dunns and their haunted house, which represents a fast-fading and more innocent past--but to Roberts's script, which outs him as one of the most talented traditional dramatists working today.

If you were to relive the seminal moments of your childhood, your cynical modern self might easily dismiss them for their cheesiness. But Haunted House treats the past with respect, respectfully preserving the familiar odors and the time-honored dust, taking pride in what others dismiss as pedestrian and ordinary. Roberts understands that what we assume to be irrelevant is far from meaningless, and so he evokes a genuine sorrow, the sort comes from losing hold of what we don't even realize is precious. He also finds the most elegant ways of putting it, as when Lucy compares loneliness to "a single gig of RAM," or when Wendy describes magic as the way "the molecules that separate everything from everything" just disappear when she touches her lover.

A good haunted house is only as good as its ability to secret away its gears, and this is where Brian Ziv's direction plays such a vital role. He embeds every object on stage--from the plastic scythe to the static columns of Dominos--with real life. He finds nice parallels too, from the way he uses Julia Noulin-Merat's set to look in through the windows of both the actual Dunn house, and their haunted one, showing the time-worn hauntings of each. Above all, he heightens the terrific dialogue by ensuring that the actors each bring quirks to their role, from the way Charney's Cy sweeps up his ghoul's cowl with generations of grand English tradition behind him, to the way that Blaine's Moses never wastes a movement, bearing full-on scorn with the ease of his trademarked pencil-snap.

The cast is the other thing Haunted House has going for it--no mere mechanical creepy-crawlies, these. Not for a minute could we see Cherkas's nerd-chic Lucy as anything less than fully fleshed, from the way she melts into the giddy joy of feeling thirteen again, to the way she battles her impulses to try and find what she really wants. These internal struggles are even visible in someone like Peter: while he may be the obedient, simple son, Altman keeps him from being a sheep, and his sudden movements are all the more surprising--and understanding--for that. All the characters, especially the way Miller shows Wendy's hidden romance, have such strong feelings that when they clash, it's hard to know who to root for.

There are tons of hidden rooms in Roberts's writing: you can read it as a deep-down allegory for the "corruptive forces of modernity"--that is, apathy, which is full blown in Moses, a "faith-eist" who actively believes in nothing. But you can also just experience it for the terrific ride that it is: those goosebumps won't be from horror, but from hearing and seeing such sad, beautiful truth.

Haunted House (90 min.)
Irish Arts Center (553 West 51st Street)
Tickets (212-868-4444): $20.00
Performances (through 8/8): Thurs. - Sat. @ 8:00

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