Elizabeth Marvel and Justin Chatwin in Dark Matters
(© Sandra Coudert)
Elizabeth Marvel and Justin Chatwin in Dark Matters
(© Sandra Coudert)
If any television or film producer decides to revive The Twilight Zone yet again, they should consider calling Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. This gifted playwright's newest work -- the generally absorbing Dark Matters, now on view at the Rattlestick Theatre -- resembles nothing so much as an episode of the famed Rod Serling series.

For all its twists, the play, like many a Twilight Zone episode, has serious issues at its core; notably, the nature of marriage and the concept of trust. (These are popular topics this week, with the debut of Paul Rudnick's Regrets Only). But one wishes Aguirre-Sacasa had delved a little deeper to give the play more substance. At 80 minutes, plus an extremely ill-advised intermission, Dark Matters is a bit too lightweight to be completely satisfying.

As with other pieces of this sort, it's best for audiences not to know too much of the plot going in. The play is set totally in a house in the backwoods of Virginia (very well designed by Wilson Chin), where Michael Cleary (Reed Birney), a writer, his wife Bridget (Elizabeth Marvel), a librarian, and their 16-year-old son Jeremy (Justin Chatwin) have recently moved from Washington D.C. As the action begins, Bridget, who has been known to disappear for hours at a time, has now been gone for about eight hours, and Michael has called the town's gruff but kindly Sheriff Egan (Michael Cullen) to report her absence. As the piece develops, it will turn out that very little is what it first seems, including the state of the Cleary's union and the reason for Bridget's frequent journeys outside the home.

The much in-demand young director Trip Cullman grounds the play completely in realism, a mostly successful choice that nonetheless deprives the piece of an eerieness of mood that would render it a bit more terrifying. Michael Friedman's ominous music and Shane Rettig's sound design provide a bit of aural creepiness, and Matt Richards' lighting design is extremely effective.

Cullman has also guided his four-person cast quite smartly. Birney does an outstanding job of capturing Michael's fear, helplessness, and anger; his scenes with Chatwin are terrific examples of the complex father-son dynamic. Marvel, who's rarely less than brilliant in anything, manuevers effortlessly through Bridget's complex emotional landscape. As usual, her fierce commitment to the role is always on display.

In the slightly smaller roles, Cullen brings a nice ambiguity to Egan, leaving the audience to truly wonder at the end about his character. The impossibly pretty Chatwin is quite believable as the intelligent, slightly raw teenager, though a few of his line readings seem slightly too stilted. (Like many of Aguirre-Sacasa's characters, Jeremy fancies comic books.)

For true scares, you might be better offering renting a great horror movie than seeing Dark Matters, but those flicks rarely offer the kind of nuanced acting that's onstage here.