nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
November 16, 2006
Fans of both The Twilight Zone and The X-Files will find lots to like in Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's new suspense thriller, Dark Matters. His story of a woman's disappearance is expertly told and full of spooky portents. Spousal abuse, alien abduction, cheating housewives—it's all here. Or is it? Rattlestick Playwrights Theater's dynamic and engaging new production keeps one guessing all the way.
The setting is rural Virginia. Michael Cleary, a novelist who drives a milk truck to pay the bills, has reported his wife, Bridget, missing. But, it seems she goes missing a lot: middle-of-the-night sojourns to look at the stars, a former childhood habit of sleepwalking, and a lot more are revealed as the local Sheriff Egan investigates her potential whereabouts. For some reason, though, Michael believes this instance is different, and fears something terrible has happened to her. Their teenage son, Jeremy, is also worried, but causing problems of his own, namely of the drinking and drugging variety.
When Bridget (who is also a writer) finally reappears after several days, she is healthy and unharmed. But, boy, does she have a story to tell! Far be it from me to spoil the fun, but I will say this: the book that Bridget has been researching for years, one that aims to refute the existence of alien life forms...well, let's just say that's not what the research was for.
Despite its supernatural cover, the dominant theme of the play is trust. Michael and Bridget have been married for more than 20 years, and their marital certitude has been fractured over time. They are both still recovering from a several-years-ago incident in which Michael hit Bridget out of rage, and broke her nose. He suspected her of cheating on him then, and when that possibility rears its head again, Michael slowly begins to unravel. Is he going to believe her when she denies his accusation? And, is he going to believe the incredible story about her disappearance? The strength of marital bonds is put to the test in Dark Matters.
Then, there's the matter of Jeremy. It turns out that, even though he's not involved, Bridget's disappearance has something to do with him. Once again, I am loathe to give away anything, but it soon becomes clear to Michael that he may have to protect Jeremy from Bridget, even though she claims they must protect him from something else altogether.
Aguirre-Sacasa keeps one's head spinning with all of his story's delicious and sinister possibilities, and threads Dark Matters with a noir-ish sensibility. Director Trip Cullman does a masterful job of building suspense and keeping the production's unsettling creepiness factor high. Wilson Chin's wonderfully detailed set, Matt Richards's disturbingly atmospheric lights, and Shane Rettig's sweat-inducing sound design enhance the proceedings.
Elizabeth Marvel, always a forceful and reliable presence on stage, is once again splendid in the role of Bridget, investing deeply in a character that could easily be laughed or shrugged off. Justin Chatwin provides strong support as Jeremy, admirably dodging many of the acting clichés associated with playing teen angst. Michael Cullen brings a cool sturdiness to the role of Sheriff Egan, one that becomes more eerie as the play goes on. And, as Michael, Reed Birney sinks his teeth in and delivers what may be his finest performance to date. Brimming over with panic and suspicion, Birney paints a compelling and utterly convincing portrait of a man coming unglued because he cannot embrace anything illogical or mysterious.
My only gripe with Dark Matters is its closing moments, in which Aguirre-Sacasa unfortunately chooses a looser, more nebulous conclusion than the one he's been barreling toward for the brunt of the play. It gives the production an air of having copped out, which is sad since it doesn't need to. Otherwise, Dark Matters is a spell-binding and hair-raising delight that will leave audiences craving more from this talented young writer.