Thursday, October 29, 2009

Ghost Light

Photo/Carla Bellisio

Desi Moreno-Penson's latest play, Ghost Light wants to be a tongue-in-cheek ghost story, but mistakes schlock for shock, with characters and situations so insane that it makes last year's off-the-mark B-movie Mindgame look positively brilliant. It's not that "horror doesn't work on stage," as TV actor Brian (Bryant Mason) points out--check out Temporary Distortion's Americana Kamikaze, or Timothy Haskell's long-running Nightmare "haunted house"--so much as it is that it's hard to pull off in a theater. In fact, director José Zayas, who is more and more creative with each new project, could pull it off if he weren't constantly derailed by sloppy plotting. Instead of being allowed to play with the taut delays of suspense, he has to rush through (before we think too hard), settling for one quick scare--the epitome of cheap horror.

Things start off far more promisingly: Brian and his old friend and soon to be new lover, Natalie (Kate Benson) are in a hotel room. Their initial awkward courting is a bit like Tracy Letts's Bug; they joke about the prostitutes who normally frequent this motel as a means of breaking the ice. Moreno-Penson doesn't miss a chance to add the tropes of a ghost story, heavy-handed as it may be to point out the flickering lights, swarming flies, and weird faces in the mirror. But her laziness shows in these opening scenes, for Natalie then provides jokey exposition about her prescription for a drug--as if it weren't already clear from her flinty attitude and surfacing rage ("I use my hatred as a motivator for my work") that she's a bit unstable. Still, what works about the opening--and this is Zayas's handiwork--is how graphic their sex scene becomes; by being so present in the physical, Ghost Light has the opportunity to slip in the supernatural stuff.

Instead, however, we get Marty (Hugh Sinclair), the motel's security guard, who gains admittance under false premises and starts babbling about the dangers they're in. It's enough of a stretch to believe that a fleabag motel has a security guard, let alone one as reedy and weird as Marty (told that Ernest Borgnine won an Oscar for the film Marty, he asks "Who did he play?"). But it's obvious that something's up when Marty--despite having just warned them--decides that it's OK for them to wait there while he tries to move them to another room. While he's gone, Natalie asks Brian, "Why are you here with me?" and he answers, "Because I can," and the play is back on track with something real.

But Moreno-Penson isn't interested in exploring the way normal people like Natalie might as well be ghosts to celebrities like Brian; instead, she takes the easy way out and comes up with a flimsy reason for Natalie to leave and--worse--for Brian to stay in the hotel room with Marty, who--believe it or not--wants to pitch him a play that he's written. In too-neat a trick of meta-fiction, Brian lies back on the bed, and as he listens to Marty's story--which is about a motel security guard warning a couple about the hotel room they're in--he slowly starts to fall asleep--which is what the audience is doing.

This pattern of inconsistencies (I know, ironic) continues for the rest of Ghost Light: Moreno-Penson introduces an interesting twist, or starts down a new road--as when Marty starts getting crude, talking about all the exotic "gash" Brian must get--only to fall back on the comfort of the cheap hotel room and its shallower occupants. (To clarify one thing, though--all three actors do a fine job, particularly Sinclair. If there's any depth to their roles, it comes from their commitment.) There are some fine lines and thoughts--for instance, "the smell of an old man that just swallowed a baby"--but the plot is far too shaky for them to work.

At the beginning of the play, Brian explains that he doesn't want to have an affair with Natalie (they're both married)--it's too messy once you let emotions in. Instead, he wants a comfortable "arrangement." If Ghost Light wants to make its marriage of horror and drama work, it needs to have an affair.

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