Grey House, now playing at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre, is the single most confounding and altogether baffling production from the Great White Way I have seen since my controversial hot take on underwhelming Mean Girls: The Musical. As with other critic reviews, unfortunately Tatiana Maslany was out for my show as well—her understudy, Claire Karpen, was nevertheless terrific as the frantic Max. My biggest issue with this show is that tonally, the deadly-seriousness of later developments does not mesh with the shakily attempted campy horror elements. Bursting at the seams with admirably talented performers—including Roseanne and Scream 2 star Laurie Metcalf, A Quiet Place’s Millicent Simmonds, Beetlejuice Broadway lead Sophia Anne Caruso, and Paul Sparks, Boardwalk Empire’s Mickey Doyle—Grey House seems incapable of giving them equally great material to match. Milage may vary when it comes to personal tastes, but if you’re here for either horror or a captivating story from Broadway’s movie-length Grey House, prepare to walk away tragically disappointed.
Instead of starting with the main couple that should be acting as our straight-laced window into this strange tale, Grey House opts to open the curtain to a sprawling house set. This will be our sole location for the entirety of the show, and it is certainly a beautiful one to behold. Metcalf’s mountain woman matriarch, Raleigh, is slumped against two young girls on the couch, A1656 (Alyssa Emily Marvin) and Harlow (Caruso), as a tiny television set blasts cartoons. A creepy baby doll leans against the TV set. From this vantage point, we have the perfect framing of a staircase up to an unseen second floor, a gloomy doorway into the basement, and an entire full kitchen with a constantly-changing magical fridge. How cool it could have been to explore the other rooms of the house; alas, they opt not to go there.
Set in 1977, Grey House certainly takes its sweet time setting up its central story. A ferocious blizzard rages outside, represented through a doorway that howls with icy wind. Squirrel (Colby Kipnes) comes up from the basement to grab measuring tape from the kitchen, where Bernie (Simmonds) and The Boy (Eamon Patrick O’Connell) play separately in silence. Seconds later, the loud buzzing of power tools drifts up from downstairs. Squirrel returns to stitch something nasty into a weird sort of human flesh patchwork quilt. The girls group together, quietly belting out a hypnotic tune characterized by stomping and dancing on the kitchen table. A car crashes outside—they all disperse, including erratically-moving Squirrel.
We already know supernatural happenings are afoot, even before Max and Henry (Sparks) arrive on the scene. Why then does the play later try to make its reveal into some kind of haphazard twist? Following the setup of countless genre films, Max and Henry find themselves at this seemingly abandoned house. Their car hit a tree when swerving to miss a deer. Now, Henry’s foot is badly hurt. “I’ve seen this movie—we don’t make it,” Henry observes in a meta way. The home’s only phone is dangling by a cut cord. Enter: Bernie, who can give Henry a nosebleed by simply pointing at him. Soon the entire family, including the slumbering Raleigh, emerges to welcome Max and Henry.
Dim lighting tries hard to make the initial introduction of the family to this couple as ominous as possible. The closest town fifteen miles away, Max and Henry are forced to stay in this strange home until the “once storm” blows over. As Raleigh explains, this once in a lifetime kind of storm has “shit so cold your teeth will explode” if outside more than fifteen minutes. The fridge is filled with the “nectar of dead men,” though Raleigh claims it is only her moonshine collection. This colorful introduction sets up many of the ideas Grey House eventually becomes interested in exploring.
Doors creak open, and loud sounds rattle out, characterizing the house itself as being off. Henry’s injury leaves him partly incapacitated, and it is in this state that he becomes addicted to the “moonshine” in the fridge. Dramatic fades to black allow the actors to shift about on set or pass the time transitionally. This tactic is used so many times that it begins to grow exhausting. There is no orchestra and very little music to speak of, apart from what the little girls sing, or the loud sound effects for a jump scare. Wise choice, then, to have a Beetlejuice starlet pull off the wicked role of Marlow.
Young cast has good chemistry with one another, making their grouped activities explore a sense of sisterhood. The weird nursery rhymes and twisted games the girls want to play with Max don’t make a lot of sense, nor do they adhere to traditional rules. Speaking of rules, the motivations of the girls and their matriarch are pretty inconsistent. A couple of them seem to be purposely orchestrating the insanity, yet once we learn more of their backstory, why they would be acting this way is anyone’s guess.
As if the oddities onstage were simply told to do the atmospheric heavy lifting, Levi Holloway’s script follows tropes, then fails to do anything even remotely exciting with them. Metaphors for female trauma and the terribleness of men are half-baked. The humor is as bizarre as the play itself. Are we really supposed to sympathize with a drunken asshole making conversation about a dead bird’s “little penis?” Director Joe Mantello has an eye for macabre visuals, including one moment with peeled-back flesh that is a pretty gnarly thing to see on a quiet morning. A head-scratching climax all but kills any positive word of mouth.
At the very least, Grey House will be a peculiar conversation starter—at my Sunday matinee performance, the crowd stood and clapped for the curtain call, but buzzes of confusion and general bewilderment rang louder than the show’s abrasive sound design. The cast and creatives are having a great time, and the show bursts with creativity, however mismanaged. Horror was always going to be a difficult sell on the stage—as much as I wanted to love Grey House, I mostly felt disappointed with the strange slow-burn horror-tinged comedy we got instead.
Get trapped inside a ghastly Grey House, now playing at New York City’s Lyceum Theatre. For ticketing information, please head over to the play’s official website.