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The Thin Place Plays Scary Games With Your Suspension of Disbelief

Lucas Hnath's new play debunks communication with the afterlife…or does it?

Randy Danson (Linda) and Emily Cass McDonnell (Hilda) in Lucas Hnath's The Thin Place, directed by Les Waters, at Playwrights Horizons.
(© Joan Marcus)

Not to deny Lucas Hnath creative success, but it's nice to see his work away from the big Broadway houses Scott Rudin has been rushing his plays into the past few seasons. A Doll's House, Part 2 and Hillary and Clinton (which played Broadway's John Golden Theatre in 2017 and 2019, respectively) both displayed Hnath's talent for picking a debate and hashing it out until you don't know which way is up. But there was something about each of them — with their clickbaity titles and oversize packages — that dissipated the energy that makes Hnath's audiences lean forward and hang onto every word.

That energy has been recovered in his new play, The Thin Place, now running at Playwrights Horizons' Peter Jay Sharp Theater. Hnath and director Les Waters have crafted a tight 90-minute play — part ghost story, part dissection of "truth" — that builds a never-ending loop between your head and your sixth sense, and satisfies the cravings of both.

Emily Cass McDonnell diffidently holds court from a wingback chair (two of these chairs separated by an end table makes up the entirety of Mimi Lien's set) as our cryptic main character, Hilda — a woman whose now-deceased grandmother trained her in the ways of mental telepathy to prepare her for the day they would have to communicate from different realms.

Mug of tea in hand, she tells us about these psychic games she and her grandmother would play, about the family rift it caused when her mother discovered them, and about Linda (an entrancing Randy Danson) — a "professional" spiritualist whom Hilda befriends after her mother mysteriously disappears. During a compelling "sitting," Linda is able to reach Hilda's grandmother but not her mother, so perhaps there's hope that her mother hasn't yet passed into the afterlife.

Kelly McAndrew, Randy Danson, Triney Sandoval, and Emily Cass McDonnell in a scene from The Thin Place.
(© Joan Marcus)

That's the logic Hnath coaxes us into when our defenses are down, but, as we should have already known, Linda's otherworldly powers are a hoax. She speaks openly about it (to Hilda and her close friends Jerry and Sylvia, played by Triney Sandoval and Kelly McAndrew), describing her career as a form of benevolent psychotherapy, bringing closure to tortured souls. Though she tells Hilda that her skill lies in the art of suggestion rather than in the supernatural, Hilda continues to cling even tighter to the idea that communicating with spirits is possible. Maybe Linda is just unaware of her powers, she thinks, or maybe she herself is the one with the real gift. After all, cold hard facts don't stand a chance next to the balm of Linda's professional thesis statement: "Let's get one thing straight: There is no death."

Even the greatest skeptic faced with the most damning evidence can be seduced by the unlikely possibility that not only can we communicate with the dead, but that we can cheat death ourselves. That's the thin place — the space between "fact" and "alternative fact," "truth" and "not quite untruth," "probably not" and "could be." And isn't that precisely the gulf that's been swallowing us all whole these days? When the stakes are pushed beyond red and blue (a realm many playwrights have had a hard time resisting in this traumatizing political climate), and are reframed as the desperate struggle for internal peace, the impulse to deny fact is suddenly fathomable…because we've all done it.

There's certainly a line to be drawn between The Thin Place and The Christians, Hnath's 2015 play that examined a more established kind of faith. But with the occult involved, Hnath and his creative team have seized the theatrical opportunity to spook their audiences (lighting designer Mark Barton doles out some effective surprises, enhanced by the subtle work of sound designer Christian Frederickson and illusion designer Steve Cuiffo). It makes for a fun ride, but also makes you reflect on how easily your own nerves can be tugged to the very edge of disbelief. Because as stalwart as you think you think your beliefs are, it just takes some darkness and an unexplained noise to turn us all into middle schoolers with a Ouija board at a slumber party.

The Thin Place runs through January 5, 2020, at Playwrights Horizons.
(© Joan Marcus)
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