Theater Review: Ghost Light by Desi Moreno-Penson

Entertaining and thought-provoking, this new thriller is a nice way to begin hacking one’s way into the Halloween season.

A car horn, flies buzzing, a cheap-looking bed, a plastic, institutional ashtray – we're in a no-tell hotel somewhere in Manhattan. The real location of such a place would more likely be Queens or New Jersey, but let that go – Ghost Light isn't about reality. Quite the opposite, and doubly so. Desi Moreno-Penson's new thriller shoulders its way into the world of Hollywood and the theater, while trying to carry the weight of the occult as well (just in time for Halloween), thus tripping through our two most culturally potent lands of make-believe.

One of Ms. Moreno-Penson's goals here is to explore the desperate measures people will take to succeed, and what can happen to them when they overstep the bounds of sensitivity and sense in their quests. Treachery, sex, violence – how far can it go? It all starts plausibly enough. Natalie (the intense, vibrant Kate Benson) meets Brian (the excellent Bryant Mason) in the nameless hotel. Both married (to other people), they're here for some on-the-side action. The playwright has a good ear for the uncomfortable way people talk to each other over heavy subtext, and by the time the pair find their way to bed we think we've got a pretty good idea of their motives.

Mr. Mason, who was good when I saw him Raised in Captivity, really shines in the bigger, meatier role of Brian, who is after some no-strings sex with someone outside his circle. Despite his womanizing, his own self-image is that of a truly "nice guy" – so much so that the sincerity with which he insists "I'm a terrific person" is both funny and a little heartbreaking. For her part, the sensual but acerbic Natalie, who has spent time in a mental hospital, seems to be acting out her career frustrations on the more intimate stage of tawdry sex.

Natalie: You probably have enough women dancing for your pleasure out in L.A.

Brian: Not really. I'm not that attractive.

Natalie: That doesn't matter! Don't be so pathetic. Once you're successful, everything comes…That's it. It just COMES…

Once we know that Brian isn't just an actor but a Hollywood celebrity, the dynamic elasticizes. Who is taking advantage of whom, and why? Then Natalie sees something in the ceiling mirror that interrupts their coitus, and the macabre game is afoot. Mirrors mean a lot in this tale. A prominent feature of the neat set (by Jason Simms, fresh from the couldn't-be-more-different challenge of MilkMilkLemonade) is a wall mirror in which the audience sees vaguely distorted reflections of…the audience. It's a little creepy, and makes for effective foreshadowing.

Natalie, a struggling playwright, is not the only frustrated artist. An intrusive hotel security guard (the fine Hugh Sinclair) turns out to have a creative side too. Ironically, the one character who has achieved success in the land of make-believe, Brian, is the one who has nothing to hide (except from his wife). The others coruscate through multiple layers of reality and fantasy. The big reveal turns out to be stunningly implausible, but the nonstop forward motion of the play's climactic final third, the evocative verbal storytelling, and the flawless direction by José Zayas keep the vaguely confusing story moving along. Spooky lighting (by Evan Purcell) and sound (by David Margolin Lawson) contribute buzz and crackle to the action.

In the end Ghost Light doesn't fully succeed as horror. But it accomplished something rare for me: it made me feel like a kid afterwards, thinking through the plot, trying to work out what really happened and what underlay it all. The story isn't just fantastical; it also fails to make complete sense, at least to me. But in what matters most the play succeeds overall: it entertains and makes you think. It's a nice way to begin hacking your way into the Halloween season.

Ghost Light runs through Oct. 31 at the 59E59 Theaters. Get tickets online, call 212-279-4200, or visit the box office.

Photo: Carla Bellisio