Deserted woods, remote make-out spots, creaky mansions—these are ghost story locales. The stretch of West 42nd between Sixth and Seventh is not. With Condé Nast headquarters at one end and Tad’s broiled steaks at another, it appears at once too corporate slick and too cut-rate smarmy to allow for the otherworldly. But here, in an unheated theater with uncomfortable chairs, playwright Anne Washburn unveils a heavy-booted maniac, a backyard demon, a vanished spirit (whiskey, with soda), a forest full of weevils, and the fearsome Dark Morton.
Apparition: An Uneasy Play of the Underknown toys with genre, borrowing from the thriller, the sci-fi story, the campfire screecher—even, liberally, from Macbeth. Under Linsay Firman’s direction, five actors perform these tales in the ashen whites and sickly golds of Matt Frey’s lighting. With hardly any props or set, the cast manages to summon up full worlds—each with particular rules and characteristics—within a few sentences. When a woman (Heidi Schreck) wakes a man (David Brooks) in his attic bedroom, she murmurs that she might be a ghost or possibly a succubus. “Oh, no you’re not,” he explains matter-of-factly. “If you were a demon . . . I’d feel a terrible sense of oppression. And I would feel the presence of another presence in the room, because demons are always more than their human containers.”
Similarly, Washburn’s script is more than the sum of its words—though those words are lovely, especially “reticulating.” Her situations are ineluctably theatrical. This is not a text secretly wishing it were a novel or teleplay. Her writing considers the mystery of human presence; it requires live performance. Though witches and spooks may be immediate characters, her larger subject concerns how much we can ever know of this world or any other. In her hands, even an ordinary bus trip seem inscrutable.
A demon (T. Ryder Smith) explains, “They’re easy to get into, once they are there, but you have to know where they will appear. I have a bus schedule, obtained with great difficulty; there is a map, which shows everywhere the bus goes, and most importantly, it shows the space you must stand on, to stop it.”
Occasionally the play devolves into silliness (bouts of fake Latin) or veers too far into non sequitur. Perhaps the end gutters out when it ought to be abruptly snuffed. But when, just before the curtain, a character intones, “The light is off and the dark is still on,” you find yourself wishing that Washburn’s dark would indeed go on, at least for a little while longer.