Pipeline Theatre Company’s intimate new play about children who don’t listen to their mamas
Photo by Suzi Sadler
There is a man who lurks in the shadows. He is all gray and his mouth drips gold, and he waits for children who don't listen to their mamas. And he whispers to them, "Lean out the window...it isn't too far to fall..."
There was once a boy named Simon, and he always listened to his mama. She never let him out of her sight, and he always did what she said, so he always stayed safe from the gray man. But what happens when Simon's mama dies? Who is there to protect him now?
It is difficult to create a truly scary work of theater, but Pipeline Theatre Company nails it in their production of Andrew Farmer's The Gray Man. The recursive storytelling style, in which we alternate between two women telling the classic spooky bedtime story and the events of Simon's life after his mother's funeral, allows the audience to feel like they are the children the tale is being told to, scared into obedience to their parents. In this small, intimate theatrical space with a live musical score, it feels as though anything can happen to you.
Fitting the close quarters, in which a few dozen observers sit in a ring around the small platform that serves as Simon's apartment, The Gray Man remains focused on a small cast of characters even as the simple bedtime story/urban legend expands into the theatrical world. There is Simon, the boy of legend all grown up; his friend and new roommate John; two young mothers who live in his building and Grace, the bright little girl and daughter of one of the women who first notices when the gray man legend starts to come to life again. Add in a cleverly designed set that perfectly evokes a minuscule city apartment and fantastic work with lighting, often reducing the entire scene to the radius of a small, dim lantern, and you can easily believe the gray man is in your room too.
Perhaps the spookiest element of the entire play is the subtle set change that occurs sometime during a scene of almost absolute darkness, and this production's attention to detail doesn't stop there. The touching intimacy between Simon and his upstairs neighbor Grace, created through eavesdropping and storytelling from one open window to another, only emphasizes their extreme isolation in the midst of a busy city as it seeks to overwhelm them. From the costuming to the references to only "the city" and "the woods," The Gray Man is in some ways timeless and placeless, yet its fixation on the danger to children in an urban environment feels nothing if not contemporary.
Daniel Johnsen as the maladjusted young man Simon who is terrified to be alone and Shane Zeigler as his seemingly perfect friend John both exhibit fascinating psychological depths, the tale taking place as much in Simon's head as up on the stage for us to see. The pair of mothers, portrayed by Katharine Lorraine and Claire Rothrock, serve more as archetypes than fully developed characters to the same extent, though Tahlia Ellie charms as the almost too sweet little girl Grace who always seems to know more than she appears.
As the play goes on, the lines between good and evil begin to blur and the real intrigue begins. While the play could have perhaps benefited from a more ambiguous ending as to how responsible Simon actually is for his actions without the inclusion of the last scene, the final silhouette before the lights fade to black for the last time is more than terrifying enough to make up for it. And though a few distracting details, such as why the two men are wearing traditional Mormon undergarments, are never truly explained, overall the piece forms one neat, satisfying story that will stay with you long after you leave the theater.
Director Andrew Neisler and the rest of the Pipeline Theatre Company have taken on a challenge with The Gray Man, and they have certainly succeeded in creating an engrossing, eerie experience for their audience. Who knew that a simple story about the importance of listening to one's mother could make such good theater?
The Gray Man plays at Soho Rep's Walker Space through October 18.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.