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A CurtainUp Review
The Mystery Plays

By Brad Bradley

Gavin Creel
Gavin Creel
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's vigorous contemporary script for The Mystery Plays displays a bold and inventive new writer who often speaks engagingly to a contemporary audience. [This dramatic program should not be confused with The Mysteries which played early this year at CSC.] Whether consciously or otherwise, this young writer's pair of plays is influenced by various established twentieth-century figures, including Norman Corwin, whose radio plays were a penetrating mid-century broadcast staple; Rod Serling, whose Twilight Zone, despite its superficial realism, gave early television audiences a heavy dose of the peculiar; and even Thornton Wilder, whose seminal short plays inspired his own classic Our Town. Wilder in fact pioneered the notion of reducing scenery and props to the minimum as well as the now familiar use of storytelling propelled by two techniques which break through the fourth wall: first person narrative by the protagonist and the presence of a helpful know-it-all as uber-narrator. All of these venerable sources are in evidence in Aguirre-Sacasa's current material, and the production values are downright captivating from the cast through the designs and direction; however, the script finally runs out of gas in each of its halves, with the meaning irritatingly left in doubt.

The first half, "The Filmmaker's Mystery," deals with an accidental meeting and an apparently accidental train crash that destroys all its passengers but for Joe Manning, the narrating protagonist, himself mysteriously delayed at an interim stop en route to his destination. The story is quite other-worldly, often baffling and annoyingly so in its final third, but thoroughly captivating until the mystery turns to mud and the work feels unfinished. Yet the acting is so compelling that the weaknesses of the writing are partly overcome. Gavin Creel is excellent as the curious and eccentric filmmaker, his buoyant energy and passion for weirdness totally dominating the stage. The supporting cast is solid in assorted roles, especially Leslie Lyles as a deliciously blunt film agent and Scott Ferrara as an intriguing and later haunting presence.

The second half, "Ghost Children," is considerably higher on the scale of creepiness, its pivotal incident being a triple murder by an abused and disturbed teenage boy of his horrid parents and his innocent 11-year-old sister as well. If there's a mystery here, that's a mystery in itself. The story is told by Abbey, the other sister, 15 years after the murders. Then a mid-teen herself, and now a successful attorney, Abbey still is haunted by her brother's unforgettable deed and is trying to maintain her own sanity at a safe distance from the incarcerated older sibling. Heather Mazur is excellent as the haunted sister, but the narrative mode serves her less well than it does Joe Manning, perhaps because her character is considerably more passive and reactive than is that of Joe in the earlier piece. Peter Stadlen is superb as Abbey's brother Ben, both in the contemporary scenes as a matured and perhaps reformed prison inmate, as well as in the flashback material when he convincingly portrays a teenager so repressed and disturbed that he loses all control.

Linking the two halves of the evening is a character called Mister Mystery, who, while effectively portrayed by Mark Margolis, comes across as a superficial trick, being something of a cartooned hybrid of Wilder's Stage Manager and a Bogart-like gumshoe. Margolis and the rest of the cast all are wonderful in assorted smaller roles. They are well aided by Sandra Goldmark's simple yet fluid set design (including a very functional modular archway and a versatile gauze curtain) and S. Daniel Baker's sound design that bridges time and set changes with dead-on mood music. The lighting design by Ryan Schmidt also is impressive. Connie Grappo's direction is full of energy and character development. But all these production strengths are not quite enough to make The Mystery Plays satisfying.

There are some elements here of the existential theatrical question, "What is the truth, and when is it replaced by an illusion?" Unfortunately, this philosophical consideration is merely hinted at rather than developed. Fans of such notions will get considerably more dramatic payoff from the masters (e.g., the likes of Pirandello, Pinter and Albee).

The Mystery Plays
Written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Directed by Connie Grappo
Cast: Mark Margolis, Gavin Creel, Scott Ferrara, Peter Stadlen, Leslie Lyles, and Heather Mazur.
Set Design: Sandra Goldmark
Costume Design: Amanda Walker
Lighting Design: S. Ryan Schmidt
Sound Design: Daniel Baker Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes including one intermission.
Presented by Second Stage Theatre in association with Yale Repertory Theatre
at McGinn/Cazale Theatre, Broadway at 76th St.(212) 246-4422
6/21/04 to 7/10/04; opened 6/28/04
Viewed by Brad Bradley at Friday, June 25 preview.
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