Modern ghost story ranks among the classics
Do you want to be frightened? More than that, do you want to be terrified, to feel the cold hand of some unseen phantom clutch your heart for two hours, squeezing until the constriction threatens to stop its beating, the relentless pressure interrupted only by periodic banshee screams that jolt your stricken nerves into renewed sensitivity to the torture you are enduring?
Well, then, 2:22 – A Ghost Story is for you. Coming across like the demonic love child of Edward Albee and Henry James, Danny Robins’ play is a brilliantly realized attempt to redeem the hoariest of dramatic devices (the time lock) while simultaneously resurrecting the creakiest of old genres (the ghost story) and modernizing it for a skeptical, secular age. As staged and performed at the Ahmanson Theatre, the result will quicken your blood and stricken your soul, ending with a glacial chill that will haunt you on the way home from the theatre and lasting well into the cold, dark night.
2:22 A Ghost Story Review: Breaking the Fourth Wall into the Unknown
The first impression of 2:22 – A Ghost Story arrives courtesy of Anna Fleischle’s scenic design. Unencumbered by a curtain, the sharp angles seem to reach out into the theatre, drawing the eye into the performance space, making it feel like an extension of seating area. Before a single line has been uttered, you already feel like part of the action – a sensation magnified by the digital clock above the doorway to the upstairs room, which runs in a crazy, repeating countdown until the show starts.
It will become clear later that the clock provides a High Noon-type countdown to the play’s climax. More than that, it is somehow appropriate that the clock is digital: once a symbol of modernity, since lapsed into cliché, the clock is a visible representation of what has been happening in this hollow living space, which turns out to be an old apartment gutted and of its history and papered over with a modern soulless look. Ironically, being soulless is no guarantee of not being haunted.
The action begins with a brief vignette, like a horror prologue designed to inflict an early scare for impatient viewers. We see Jenny (Constance Wu), in the early hours of the morning, dabbing paint on a wall as part of the apartment’s “renovation,” while the sound of her baby floats downstairs via a monitor on a nearby table. As the clock reaches the titular 2:22, the scene goes black; neon light outlining the stage flashes red; and a shrill audio shriek (like something from a John Carpenter soundtrack) pierces the theatre, jolting the nerves that will not recover till long after the play is over.
Thus, 2:22 – A Ghost Story announces its intentions up front. It may be an extremely thoughtful, well-written piece, filled with nuanced characterization and a slow burn to a devastating climax, but it is perfectly happy to sucker punch you if that’s what it takes. Fortunately, it saves the its best punch for last.
2:22 A Ghost Story Review: Losing My Relgion
The body of 2:22 – A Ghost Story is long, dark night of the soul, in which two couples get together for an evening of cocktails and conversation, which ends up extending into the early hours of the morning. It’s not quite Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, but the host is a college professor, and his wife does have an off-stage baby who is discussed more than seen. More than that, the convivial atmosphere and erudite dialogue mask underlying tensions, which the play subtly telegraphs without any sledgehammer foreshadowing.
Sam (Finn Wittrock), a professor who has just written an astronomy-for-dummies type book, is recently returned from a solo vacation to an isolated area ideal for viewing the night skies. Jenny, his wife, is irritated that she was unable to reach him the past few days; he claims to have lost his phone while stumbling around in the dark, but it’s not clear she believes him.
Jenny may have reason to doubt. Their guests are Ben (Adam Rothenberg) and Lauren (Anna Camp). The latter is an old college friend of Sam’s; their shared history suggests a former intimacy on the verge of rekindling – something that Ben senses early on, eventually leading to a confrontation and a slap in the face.
None of this, however, is what truly is disturbing Jenny. The prologue incident turns out to be one of a series: every night, at 2:22am, she hears adult footsteps through the baby monitor; the one time she investigated, she saw nothing but felt a presence and heard sobbing. Sam, the rational scientist, dismisses her belief that their home is haunted. Seeking validation, she asks Ben and Lauren to stay until the appointed hour to hear for themselves. Irritated in varying degrees by Sam’s know-it-all attitude, they agree.
Thus the stage is set (literally) for the next two hours of nail-biting apprehension as 2:22 – A Ghost Story relentlessly turns the screw tighter and tighter, ratcheting tension to almost unbearable levels. Throughout the night, the simmering dramatic tensions seep to the surface, but the main through line remains front and center in the mind if not visible on stage: who or what – if anything – is haunting Jenny and Sam’s baby?
The result is a slow burn that never feels slow. The script is peppered with clever lines and bits of business that amuse even when the script is laying out exposition or back story – little touches of comic relief that prevent the ticking countdown – visible, courtesy of the digital clock on the wall – from becoming monotonous. And if there comes a moment when you feel you have gauged the pace and can relax into anticipating the the conclusion, rest assured your comfort will be ripped away from you at regular intervals. 2:22 – A Ghost Story does not play out in real time; the story takes place over 6-8 hours, with each jump forward punctuated by another blackout backed by a shrill audio scream.
Along the way, the dialogue is dotted with tidbits of information that is well balanced between red herrings and essentials, but unless your are Sherlock Holmes you will not be able to “recognize…which are incidental and which vital” – at least not until the end. For instance, how did the teddy bear get into the bathroom without anyone seeing it move – a pesky fact even Sam cannot explain – ?
More subtly, early in the play Sam goes upstairs to close the window in the baby’s room, but shortly thereafter Jenny returns from checking the room and announces that the window was still open. Did the ghost re-open the window, or did Sam forget – or possibly leave it open deliberately? He seems baffled by the incident, but it brings him no closer to believing his wife’s story. When the dialogue gets around to mentioning the Lindberg kidnapping (the culprit entered through a window), the apparent foreshadowing sets off alarm bells, which later escalate to a three-alarm emergency broadcast when Lauren tells her own ghost story about a childhood friend who fell out a bedroom window. Is the play hinting that the baby will go out the window like Burk Dennings in The Exorcist?
We will not reveal whether 2:22 – A Ghost Story follows this road to its conclusion, but we will note that the script deftly handles the inherent challenge in its premise, which sets up an either-or conclusion: either the ghost is real, or it is not. Either way, we know what to expect, which could lead to an anticlimax. Playwright Danny Robins takes this bull by the horns in much the same way that John Dickson Carr did in his mystery novel The Three Coffins, which contains the famous “Locked-Room Lecture” in Chapter 17, wherein fictional detective Dr. Gideon Fell literally explains every possible solution to the book’s mystery, thus managing reader expectations about what the ending will actually deliver.
In 2:22 – A Ghost Story, Robins takes a roughly similar approach by having Sam challenge the characters to a drinking game in which he offers various reasons why ghosts cannot exist, and the others try to provide explanations that will satisfy him. With so many billions dead, why is the world not inundated with ghosts? If ghosts haunt places where they died, why are they haunting houses instead of hospitals? Each answer provides a possible explanation for the ghost scheduled to appear at 2:22. Perhaps ghosts are like refugees: many attempt the crossing, but only a few make it. Or perhaps ghosts are phantoms of their former selves, remaining in the places they knew in life, oblivious to their own deaths, not exactly trapped but just extending a meaningless existence into infinity.
Ben has his own ideas, since his mother was a medium. He makes an attempt to contact the spirit haunting the house, with alarming though not completely convincing results, but more important, he sees Sam’d renovation of the apartment as a deplorable attempt to wipe away a past that will not go quietly to its grave. Is is possible their apartment is haunted by the former owner, angry that all the shelves and furniture he built by hand have been wiped away as if they never existed?
With these questions and answers, Robins drags the ghost story into the 21st century, making it relevant for secular age when audiences may not be receptive to an old-fashioned concept of the afterlife – or any concept at all (a gambit that the 2020 film The Night House attempted with interesting but ultimately unsatisfying effect). As presented here (at least in theory), the Great Beyond is much less pleasant than a Hallmark Greeting card vision of Elysian Fields
This all comes to rest on Jenny, the lapsed Catholic who lost her belief in God while falling in love listening to Sam’s explanation of the cosmos. It is not clear that she regains her faith, but when confronted with apparently supernatural events, she seeks shelter in familiar icons and rituals, leading to a major confrontation with Sam when she wants to place her mother’s cross in the baby’s room for protection. For all his charm and intelligence, Sam reveals himself to be a bit of a jerk here, refusing to consider that the cross may provide psychological comfort to his wife even if it has no real utility.
Ultimately, 2:22 – A Ghost Story is about a woman who has given up a part of herself – maybe all of herself – in order to marry a man who will not compromise with her, and the ghost may be the catalyst that finally drives her to regain her lost independence.
2:22 A Ghost Story Review: Shh, Please Don’t Tell
There is not much more to say without giving away too much. (After the cast makes their curtain call, they exit through a door above which is projected an admonition to the audience not to spoil the ending). We will say we loved the cast of characters – both the writing and the performances. Wittrock gets the showy role as the know-it-all Sam, pontificating to everyone and refusing to budge even when the evidence turns against him. Rothenberg is great as Ben, who is introduced as a comic relief character (a contractor whose most important contribution to the conversation is praise for the work Jenny and Sam have done on their bathroom) but turns out to be perceptive and frankly more helpful than Sam, while also harboring a justified amount of class resentment. Camp pulls off what could have been an unlikable character – a professional woman still carrying the torch for her college boyfriend even after he is happily married. And Wu is the rock anchoring the whole production, a woman driven to the brink by uncanny events who manages to take a stand for herself – even if that stand turns out to be more against her husband than against the ghost.
Special mention also deserves to be made of Ian Dickinson eerie, sometimes ambient sound design, which ebbs and flows at a near-subliminal level, pressing against nervous systems already on the edge thanks to apprehension about exactly what is going to happen to Jenny and Sam’s baby.
The end itself is a thing of almost preternatural beauty – at once chilling and tragic, sending shivers through the spines that precipitate tears from your eyes. Think of the magic in a bottle that M. Night Shyamalan has desperately been attempting – and failing – to recapture for the past two decades. 2:22 – A Ghost Story is not merely that good. It is better.
Our rating of 2:22 - A Ghost Story
1 – Avoid
2 – Not All Bad
3 – Recommended
4 – Highly Recommended
5 – Must See
2:22 – A Ghost Story continues at the Ahmanson Theatre with afternoon and evening performances Tuesday through Sunday until December 4. Tickets start at $40. The address is 135 N Grand Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90012. For more information, call (213) 628-2772, or visit the website.
Credits: Written by Danny Robins. Directed by Matthew Dunster. Scenic Design by Anna Fleischle. Costume Design by Cindy Lin. Lighting Design by Lucy Carter; lighting design recreation by Sean Gleason. Sound Design by Ian Dickinson. Illusions by Chris Fisher; illusion recreation by Will Houstoun. Fight director: Edgar Landa. Vocal coach: Natsuko Ohama. Casting by David Caparelliotis CSA and Joe Gery, Caparelliotis Casting. Associate director: Gabriel Vega Weissman. Production stage manager: David S. Franklin.
Cast: Constance Wu as Jenny, Finn Wittrock as Sam, Anna Camp as Lauren, Adam Rothenberg as Ben.