Review: Artful Creepiness Comes to a Tribeca Theater

Tahlia Ellie, 11, plays Grace in a scene from "The Grey Man." Photo:Suzi Sadler

Sep. 28, 2015

Prepare to be scared. The warnings start in the foyer at Walkerspace before you even take your seats for “The Gray Man.” Signs announce that the play is not only dark in nature but really dark and there’s going to be a lot of smoke, too; this is, after all, a ghost story. But not one to take the kids to for a Halloween lark, despite the fact that one of the key performers is only 11 years old.

So it was with visions of haunted houses and fear of things that go bump in the night that we took our seats for this show by Andrew Farmer.  As we settled in, we thought we saw a disembodied head floating high above the dilapidated apartment on stage—positioned to intermittently block the stage view from every seat in the house. This sounds like a problem but the director Andrew Neisler has made inventive use of the space with action taking place on several levels. One of which was where the head floated. It soon turned out to be a member of the tech crew making ready with the light board for the blackouts to come. This moment of fairground fear was short lived—the play turned out to be much more sinister.

A lilting melody admonishing us to listen to our mothers opens the show and right away you get the feeling that this will not end well.  The music composed by Mike Brun and Chris Ryan is marvelous throughout.  A shiver seemed to ripple through the audience as creepy looking Victorian matrons claiming to be good mothers emerged from the gloaming, accompanied by some bone jangling sound effects.  They warn, “there are bad Mamas who don’t ever tell their babies the secret.”

The play plunges into the gas-lit world of New York in the early 20th century. The characters live cheek by jowl in a crumbling tenement; they hear frightening sounds coming from other floors, they don’t know their neighbors but gossip and rumors are rife. In their midst is Simon, played by a haunting Daniel Johnson, a lost soul, scared of the city, whose mother has recently died. His one friend, John, played by a swaggering Shane Ziegler, has no time for him. So via the airshaft windows, Simon befriends a little girl Grace—the precociously talented and charming Tahlia Ellie whose stories remind him of the warnings his mother gave him about the Gray Man. A classic boogeyman, the Gray Man is infamous for taking children away. Trouble and troubling themes lie ahead. This is a psychological thriller with overtones of Victorian penny dreadfuls.

Seeking escape from the city Simon takes a train—here Josh Millican’s superb sound design creates a thundering steam engine that seems to surge through the theater so close you’re tempted to pull your feet under your seat as smokes billows past. The darkness descends and you wait on tenterhooks for a horror movie-style jumpscare. One lantern lights a tiny part of the space; I swear the audience was collectively holding its breath.

The Gray Man is a dark tale that plays to our worst fears. While this production is a fine interpretation, the play’s prurience doesn’t seem to have a point beyond creepiness (observe what Simon puts in his sandwiches). You come away having witnessed any parents’ nightmare and wanting to hold your children closer than ever.

The Gray Man, produced by the Pipeline Theatre Company, is playing through Oct. 18 at Walker Space, 46 Walker St. Click here for tickets.

Cast includes: Tahlia Ellie, Daniel Johnson, Katharine Lorraine, Claire Rothrock and Shane Zeigler