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A CurtainUp Review
Dread Awakening:
"Bloody Mary", "pearls, " "Treesfall" and "Sleep Mask"

Its only true requirement is that it elicit an emotional reaction that includes some aspect of fear or dread.
---from "What is Horror Fiction" on the website of the Horror Writers Association

Christianna Nelson and Jedadiah Schultz in Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's "Bloody Mary"
C. Nelson and J. Schultz (Photo: Lauren Braun)

Four playwrights have come together to create Dread Awakening which is a group of four plays celebrating the horror genre. I was hoping to run home from the theater, turn on all of the lights and hide under my covers until morning. Instead, curiously enough, I was motivated to hurry to a dictionary to find the definition of "horror".

Practitioners of the craft are pretty settled about a few things: there needn't be blood and gore to qualify, and even the supernatural need not be invoked. "Horror is an emotion." The title of this show pretty much hits the nail on the head -- whatever you do, you have to awaken a sense of dread in your audience.

The four pieces offered here have the advantage of brevity. Clocking in between ten and twenty minutes each, if they can get us in their grip, they don't have to worry too much about losing us. Bizarrely, two of the four don't even take a stab at toying with our fear.

The first play sets a high standard for those that follow. Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's "Bloody Mary" is a smart choice as the curtain-raiser: it creeps us out while it pays homage to horror flicks and the sort of urban mythology that nurtures their successes. When we meet Ben (Jedadiah Schultz) and Laurie (Christianna Nelson), they are in a car, at night, headed to Shadow Lake. And that's about all you need to know in advance, except that it is also very funny, well acted and sharply directed. On the goose bump meter, it gets an 8 out of 10.

"pearls," by Clay McLeod Chapman, the weakest link in this chain, follows. The title refers to the teeth of a woman (Meredith Holzman) who is at the dentist (Robert Funaro). Suffice it to say nothing on display in this monologue-heavy piece (the woman spends most of the running time under the influence of laughing gas) is likely to increase the dread audiences members experience before their next dental appointment. Funaro, who has played Eugene Pontercorvo on "The Sopranos," loses us quickly and spends a good part of his remaining time engaged in an embarrassing dance under Arin Arbus' direction. Goose bumps: nil.

In "Treesfall," three young friends, Tree (Danny Deferrari), his seeming girlfriend Amy (Margie Stokley) and Paul (Abe Goldfarb), are engaged in an impromptu wake of sorts for their friend Alex, who died in the apartment under circumstances that sound quite similar to those we are observing. They are drinking heavily, especially Tree. Paul, whose relationship with Amy is not exactly platonic, leaves and returns a few times, but while in the room, he encourages Tree's alcohol consumption mercilessly. I'll leave some blanks to be filled in but there is nothing here that gets us worked up. Goose bumps: 1.

The final play, "Sleep Mask," gets us back in the genre by way of one of its staples: the nightmare. Annie (Jenny Gammello) is in bed asleep. As she wakes up in the middle of the night, James (Joe Plummer) is wide awake: he says he can't sleep. She's had a scary dream. He's worried about his crow's feet. Is Annie actually awake, or is she still in her dream? Or was she in a dream at all? Two solid performances and nicely manipulative direction keep us interested, but the ending lets us down. Goose bumps: 6.

Wilson Chin has designed a terrific set of ominous dark wood, with four doors and windows above them, that serves the individual works well. Marcus Doshi's lighting adds to the creep factor and creates the necessary atmosphere -- he's even included an interesting spooky effect for the transitions. Candice Thompson's costumes are straightforward and good, while Mark Huang's sound plays its tricks when they are called for, without getting out of control.

The theater, because of its immediacy, ought to be an ideal vehicle for horror stories. Yet, while (as the playwrights point out on the show's website) "horror and the supernatural" are of "overwhelming importance and influence" in the theater, shows which seek to capitalize on this emotion often have proven to be among the theater's most glorious failures. This grouping has its share of both glory and failure.

Dread Awakening
"Bloody Mary"
by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Directed by Pat Diamond
with Christianna Nelson and Jedadiah Schultz

by Clay McLeod Chapman
Directed by Arin Arbus
with Meredith Holzman and Robert Funaro

by Justin Swain
Directed by Jessica Davis-Irons
with Danny Deferrari, Abe Goldfarb and Margie Stokley

"Sleep Mask"
by Eric Sanders
Directed by Amanda Charlton
with Jenny Gammello and Joe Plummer
Set Design: Wilson Chin
Costume Design: Candice Thompson
Lighting Design: Marcus Doshi
Sound Design: Mark Huang
Running time: 1 hour with no intermission
A production of Thursday Problem
45th Street Theatre, 354 West 45th Street (8/9 Avs)
Telephone (212) 868-4444
April 6 - 23, 2006
MON - TUES, THURS - SAT @8, SUN @7; $15
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 4/7/06 performance
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©2006  Elyse Sommer.