Gavin Creel in The Mystery Plays(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Gavin Creel in The Mystery Plays
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
"We're mysteries. We depend on belief without understanding." So says a character in Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's The Mystery Plays. The work is made up of two loosely interconnected one-acts; the first is far superior to the second but both pieces demonstrate the playwright's quirky, Twilight Zone- and comic book-influenced writing style.

The framing device for the show is, in fact, directly derived from a pair of comic book titles published by DC Comics in the 1960s and '70s: The House of Mystery and The House of Secrets. Biblical brothers Cain and Abel were the caretakers of the two houses and served as hosts in the telling of short horror stories. In Aguirre-Sacasa's work, the two suspense-driven narratives are overseen by Mister Mystery (Mark Margolis), who introduces each tale.

"The Filmmaker's Mystery" centers on Joe Manning (Gavin Creel), a gay filmmaker interested in horror writer H.P. Lovecraft; he meets a handsome stranger named Nathan West (Scott Ferrara) on a train. What starts out as an innocent flirtation soon escalates into a thrilling supernatural mystery as Joe finds himself narrowly escaping an accident that claims 57 other lives. As he wrestles with the question of why he was spared, he is haunted by a ghost and swept up in circumstances beyond his control. Creel is magnificent in the role, switching easily between direct narration to the audience and interactions with characters within his story.

Despite the harrowing details, Aguirre-Sacasa's dialogue is often quite funny. Leslie Lyles is a scream as Joe's agent Amanda, who calls her client after the accident and has some of the best lines in the play. The humor nicely counterbalances the horror and keeps the proceedings from getting too melodramatic. Director Connie Grappo keeps the pace suspenseful, ably assisted by sound designer Daniel Baker, who provides appropriately spooky sound effects at all the right moments. Sandra Goldmark's sparse set is simple but effective. Translucent curtains towards the back of the stage make for a superb introduction of the ghost while S. Ryan Schmidt's lighting design captures the off-kilter atmosphere of the play.

The second act, entitled "Ghost Children," doesn't have either the charm or the dramatic power of the first. It centers on Abby Gilley (Heather Mazur), a lawyer who returns to her childhood home of Medford, Oregon, where her brother committed a gruesome crime back in 1985. The mystery at the heart of Abby's story is less supernatural than Joe's: As she wanders the town in the company of her driver, Sam (Ferrara), she has to come to grips with the part that she herself played in the events of so many years ago and decide whether or not she can forgive her brother.

Unfortunately, Mazur seems sluggish and is never able to make the audience care about her character. As her brother Ben, Peter Stadlen is fine when acting sullen and resentful but less convincing when the character is supposedly nervous and terrified. Moreover, the two actors just don't have the kind of electrifying chemistry that would tie them together and make the piece work.

Aguirre-Sacasa's writing in this section has less humor, and it is sorely missed. While the tale he weaves is interesting enough, it comes as a letdown after the near-perfection of the first act; the tone is so different that the piece as a whole comes across as unbalanced. The Mystery Plays is still worth seeing and it's a good follow up to the playwright's hilariously irreverent comedy Say You Love Satan, which played the New York International Fringe Festival last year. However, it would work better if Aguirre-Sacasa replaced the second tale with another story featuring Joe, who is left at the end of Act I in a position that cries out for a sequel -- maybe even an ongoing series of plays.