A séance in the intimate (by off-Broadway standards) Peter Jay Sharp Theater? Max agreed to suspend his disbelief long enough to join Kirill for “The Thin Place,” a haunting new play by Lucas Hnath running through January 5th at Playwrights Horizons. From there they retired to Astoria watering hole and RfU stomping ground The Local to record yet another meandering, bilingual conversation for their longsuffering editor to transcribe, translate, and edit into something resembling a review. (Note: This review contains spoilers. If you want to see the play “with a blank mind” as the playwright intended, go straight to playwrightshorizons.org)
Kirill: That’s the word that came to me when Emily Cass McDonnell’s Hilda tried to speak telepathically with the audience member.
Max: You mean you actually thought that was an audience member? And you tried listening with the part of your brain just a little above your eyes? Really, Kirill, there is suspension of disbelief, and there is gullibility.
Kirill: Laugh it up, Max. But when I was little, I tell you I could find any card in a face-down pile. My sister would say “queen of hearts,” for example, and I would let my hand wander over the pile like this and find the right card every time. It scared us both.
Max: You Russians. It is one of history’s great paradoxes that the first country to make materialism the state religion also gave the world Madame Blavatsky.
Kirill: In this case the medium comes from England by way of West Indies. The play is about a woman who goes to a psychic after her mother’s disappearance—I know you know this, Max. It’s a review, remember?
Max: I know it’s a review. I raised an eyebrow because the playwright’s note said [takes Kirill’s program and leafs through it] “Best to watch it with a blank mind. The less you know, the better.” By the way, what catalog is Hnath posing for here? Is there an endorsement deal with Peek & Cloppenburg?
Kirill [snatches back the program]: Stay on task, Max, or I’ll have Chris cut you off. Randy Danson was excellent in the role of Linda, don’t you think? A true grande dame of the theatre.
Max: They were all good. But Kelly McAndrew’s Sylvia is what brought out Linda’s complexity. With Hilda, Linda was a little predictable. And Triney Sandoval played a bit too much to the audience for my taste, though he had some fine moments as Jerry. No, McDonnell is the one who deserves special mention. For building a character so original and understated. It takes clear intentions to play unintentionally comical, and confidence to play someone so awkward. And she never lost the thread or played for laughs. It was such a tight, focused performance, the way she shifted from listening to Linda to addressing the audience. Really one of the best things I’ve seen in some time.
Kirill: Hmm. You will admit she was helped by a text that was more subtext than text. A rare thing in American writing. And that bare stage with two armchairs and an end table. Nothing to distract from voice and gesture. That to me is the essence of theater: an actor and a text. It’s refreshing to see theatre stripped to its essentials at the off-Broadway level.
Max: Yes, what our colleagues wrote about A Strange Loop and especially Heroes of the Fourth Turning made Playwrights Horizons sound rather conventional. But then this was the smaller stage on the fourth floor. Was that done for the sake of intimacy, I wonder, or was “A Thin Place” considered too experimental for the main stage?
Kirill: I wouldn’t say it was especially experimental. The narrative device is as American as “Our Town.” What struck me was the faith in the power of the word over image and spectacle. Very un-American. Which is perhaps why the end disappointed me, with its reliance on red light and silence and a woman draped in a sheet.
Max: The end disappointed me too, though for different reasons. It was the obligatory rebunking after the debunking.
Kirill: Rebunking? Explain.
Max: It’s what writers do when they don’t know where they stand. They debunk and then rebunk. For example: “Of course spiritualism is bunk. But…” pause for sign from beyond “….maybe there’s something to it.”
Kirill: That’s just good writing. Not taking sides. A writer should referee his characters. Not coach the winning team. Your East German weakness for agitprop is showing.
Max: And your weakness for Slavic ambiguity is hanging out. And spiritualism with a capital dollar-sign “S”. To think you actually tried to hear the word…
Kirill [to bartender]: Chris! Is there a deck of cards? [to Max] Do what the Americans say. Put your money where your mouth is. I bet a hundred dollars to your hundred.
Max: You Russians again. I won’t let you gamble away your inheritance like some Dostoevsky novel. The odds are 1 in 52. 54 unless you take out the jokers.
Kirill [spreads out the deck face down on the bar]: Tell me a card. [Max shakes his head] Tell me! [Grabs Max by the lapels].
Max: Ok, ok. The ten of diamonds.
Chris stops the music. By now a crowd has gathered. Dead silence. Kirill closes his eyes and moves his hand over the pile. He picks a card and flips it over. Shouting, laughter, music again.
Kirill: It worked when I was younger.
Max: The ten of diamonds wouldn’t have proved anything, Kirill. Any more than Rosenkranz flipping a coin and getting heads again. It’s just a coincidence. Like my guessing the word.
Kirill: What do you mean? What word?
Max: Staircase. That’s what I was thinking of when Hilda spoke to the audience.
Kirill: What?! But that’s the word she wrote down! Max, don’t you see what this means?!
Max: It means the play was almost over and I was thinking we should take the stairs instead of the elevator. To beat the crowd. It’s a coincidence, Kirill.
Kirill: No, it’s a sign! A sign for you to believe! You can’t ignore it!
Max: Of course I can. Can and will. Chris: Noch eins, bitte!
“The Thin Place” is running at Playwrights Horizons through January 5th. For more information visit playwrightshorizons.org.