Far more frightening is the claustrophobia-inducing basement setting, with its in-your-face catwalk stage, shower-curtain-lined walls (which fortunately fail to deliver on their promise of splatter), bare-bulb lighting scheme, and intense heat. Indeed, you'd have to be something of a masochist -- and not in the "make me shudder and shriek" mode -- to find the 2 ½-hour program pleasurable.
Joaquin Torres serves as de facto emcee. Assuming a Rod Serling-like suavity, he introduces the proceedings with Ann Marie Healy's original tale of a beau monde serial killer who develops a taste for shy, drab librarians. It's a cute story, suitable for campfires, but not exactly chilling. Indeed, it's an old-fashioned, well-made playlet, "The Apothecary's Daughter" by Laura Schellhardt, that fares best in this setting. It winks and smirks and doesn't even presume to scare, but at least it entertains.
Playwright Mark Schultz provides two contemporary takes on the W. W. Jacobs classic, "The Monkey's Paw": one a comic variation, the other a fairly close approximation of the original. The first is more effective. Jesse Hooker plays a not-too-bright young man who assumes that his girlfriend (Mandy Siegfried) will be thrilled to receive the grotesque talisman -- with its promise of three wishes -- as a birthday present. She reacts vehemently ("Can you stop being so disappointing?"), and while wishing her back, he becomes entangled with an unhinged, amorously inclined neighbor (Rebecca Brooksher). Watch what you wish for, indeed: Even that old fall-back wish, world peace, here proves loaded.
The second version is far more disturbing, for in lieu of an adult son mangled in a factory accident, Schultz has substituted a toddler run over by a truck. This is the stuff of unbearable tragedy, and the best efforts of Angel Desai and Adam Grotelueschen as the traumatized parents can't transform the pathos into frissons, much less easy laughs.
Dead or missing children recur as something of a leitmotif in several scenarios, including "The Names of Foods," Gary Sunshine's diffuse and rambling revision of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Story of a Mother," to which he adds a coda of a second-generation infanticide. It's really difficult to tell what the intent is here, especially since Brooksher starts out more abusive than devoted and doesn't seem all that distraught once her baby is snatched, and because Desai is called upon, confusingly, to play all the undifferentiated supporting roles.
Two interstitial monologues, "Night Games" by Victoria Stewart and "The Uses of Fear" by Liz Duffy Adams, scarcely register, and Dan Dietz's "Lobster Boy," accompanied by writerly slide-show captions, is not as profound as the author would seem to think.
Kristin Newbom's closer, a meta-meditation about her reluctance even to tackle the horror theme, has its amusing moments, such as when she admits she only accepted the assignment because she wanted to buy herself a Wii. The device of having a series of actors voice her viewpoint as the prior speakers go limp -- she calls it "bod-casting" -- holds interest for a while, but ultimately fizzles as a gimmick. As does the evening as a whole.
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