Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa wants to tell you a ghost story. A pair of them, in fact. And sure, you’ll see dead people in The Mystery Plays, but you may be surprised to find medieval theology in the mix, as well as references to the early filmography of Kiefer Sutherland.
In Act I, “The Filmmaker’s Mystery,” callow horror director Joe (Gavin Creel, looking like the love child of Anthony Rapp and a sale rack at Urban Outfitters) heads home on a train for Christmas. His seatmate, Nathan, turns out to be cute, smart, and, like Joe, a big fan of H.P. Lovecraft. And he lives in Chelsea. Hormones are heating up when a seemingly random twist of fate saves the filmmaker from the grisly tragedy that befalls Nathan and fellow travelers. Joe’s death-defying act makes news, much to the delight of his agent. Soon Hugh Jackman’s calling—and so is the ghost of Nathan. Joe’s going to be taking another ride, and this time it’s not on Amtrak.
The evening’s second offering eschews Guignol specters in favor of scarier ones: those lodged in the everyday heart. “Ghost Children” traces the blood(ied) ties between an attorney and her incarcerated brother, who’s serving 90 years for the brutal killings of their parents and sister. The piece has promise but doesn’t live up to its complex scenario.
Aguirre-Sacasa’s talent could use more discipline and less telegraphing. He flattens his Mystery by overstating themes and influences. The style veers between sketch and sustained scene-work. More than once the script is rescued by Connie Grappo’s exceptionally fluid production and supple cast.
But if this game playwright hasn’t grown into his ambitions, who can blame him? Like the medieval religious genre to which the title alludes, Aguirre-Sacasa is after big fish: sin, redemption, and, as one character puts it, what happens to human beings when “God [is] looking the other way.”
Mixing Catholicism and campfire storytelling, The Mystery Plays ultimately strands its (intrigued) audience in a stylistic Twilight Zone.