THE THIN PLACE: Slim and Lean


In one way, THE THIN PLACE is a drama critic’s dream – at least for the first 60 of its 90 minutes.

That’s how long the house lights stay on, which makes taking notes much easier. Gone is the usual struggle to write down a cogent sentence in a pitch-black house. Usually after a show when critics look at what they’ve written, they often can’t decipher the chicken scratches that they made in haste and in the dark.

All right, never mind a drama critic’s problems. How’s Lucas Hnath’s new play?

That’d be hard to say in whatever type of lighting that Hnath demanded or designer Mark Barton ordered.

Hilda (an engaging, chirpy-voiced Emily Cass McDonnell) saunters on, sits in one of the two traditional living room chairs and begins confiding in us.

She tells of those times when her grandmother would write a word in her notebook and then hold it close to her heart.

Then she would ask Hilda to guess the word.

Considering that the Oxford English Dictionary says that there are currently 171,476 words in use – as well as 47,156 that have passed into obsolescence – Grandma was asking quite a bit from her granddaughter.

What’s hard to believe is that Hilda’s mother thought that the game was “demonic” and banished Grandma from the house.  Although that would suggest that this was her husband’s mother and not her own, damn if Hnath cares to tell us.

Actually, Hnath has a great deal to say while refraining from explaining. THE THIN PLACE doesn’t make interpretation easy; apparently Hnath wouldn’t have it any other way. You’re on your own with a play that has more red herrings than you’ll find in all the world of real estate.

At least Hnath tells us Grandma’s motivation. She believed that if Hilda could connect with her enough to guess the word, the kid would then have the ability to communicate with her after she’d died. Thus Hilda came to assume that the distance between this world and the next was “a thin, thin place.”

Hilda also mentions oh-so-matter-of-factly something about her mother that would seem to bear much closer examination. That will only happen later.

First, Hilda goes to Linda (an appropriately austere Randy Danson), a psychic. Linda warns Hilda “Don’t ask me a question because you might get the answer you don’t want. The dead become truthful because they have nothing to lose.”

Both are good lines. After them, you can decide for yourself if Linda really and truly connects Hilda with her grandmother.

Although you’ll hear Linda compare her skill to psychotherapy (“but mine works”), she is unprofessional when she courts Hilda into becoming a friend.

A magician is never supposed to reveal his tricks, but Linda divulges to Hilda some of hers. She even flat-out calls them “tricks.”

Then Jerry and Sylvia arrive. Theatergoers have to be pardoned if they assume the two are a couple, given that they enter at the same time. No: Jerry (the appropriately bombastic Triney Sandoval) is Linda’s cousin and Sylvia (the very centered Kelly McAndrew) is her friend.

Every now and then a moment arrives – some from Hnath, some from sharp director Les Waters – that suggests there may be even more to the relationship between Linda and Sylvia.

Or maybe not. Sylvia soon verbally attacks Linda for “meddling with people’s minds” and “lying to people” before referring to her methods as “tricks.” That Linda is livid after using the same word may suggest a variation on that ol’ expression “I can criticize my relatives all I want – but you’d better not say a bad word about them.”

See if you believe how Linda and Sylvia act a few minutes after the quarrel.

Hilda soon gets upset, too, when Jerry mentions that Linda told him so many details she’d learned in their sessions. Where’s that confidentiality agreement that all psychotherapists offer?

Hnath may confuse us, but he occasionally amuses us, too. Linda tells of her trouble in getting a visa after writing “Psychic” next to “Occupation.” Such a job description doesn’t get much respect from bureaucrats.

Funnier still is a story about a suicide attempt. That’s not usually a subject for comedy. It is here.

Much of the play comes across as party talk – unconstructed palaver with no particular points to be made. (One character endorses the virtues of living with just the bare necessities followed by another’s pooh-poohing that philosophy.) Who can argue, though, that people make an effort at a party to say anything – a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g – rather than remain silent, which would indicate that the event is a turning into a bad time?

There’s a strange structure here, too – not necessarily one that’s problematic, but still decidedly odd: Hilda, who spoke quite a bit for the first half-hour, says only a single word during the second half-hour. Then she gets chatty again for the play’s final third.

She has a lot to say as she unleashes a tale that’s as eerie an Edgar Allan Poe story. Both McDonnell and Waters manage to make matters become increasingly taut. What then happens with the lighting helps immeasurably, too (for everyone but drama critics).

Two comfy traditional-looking living room chairs are all that set designer Mimi Lien has put on stage. Budgets are obviously tight for every theater company – even the highly successful Playwrights Horizons – but THE THIN PLACE would profit from a realistic set.

In the end, though, this may be one of those plays that will have you respond with smart-ass remarks. After Linda says of her artistry “There’s nothing to it, really,” you may add “That’s true of THE THIN PLACE.” Once one character shrugs and says “Who knows?!” you may say “Hnath doesn’t, either – and he’s neither ashamed nor afraid to admit it.”

So why do the house lights stay up for the entire first hour? That’s another unexplained mystery that dovetails into yet another for the last 30 minutes. The number of enigmas that you’re able to endure will impact your enjoyment of THE THIN PLACE.