April 29–September 3, 2023
Spoiler alert: It is difficult to analyze Grey House without discussing its plot points and mysteries, so this essay is intended for those who have seen the production.
“Grey” is an apt qualifier for the house in Levi Holloway’s play. For one, like Holloway’s ghost story, the color is eerie; the hue is associated with fog, drear, and mystery. But grey also suggests a vague middle ground, neither black nor white. En route to her father’s home, Max (Tatiana Maslany) and her husband Henry (Paul Sparks) are driving between two places—wherever they came from and wherever they are heading, locations that are never fully defined. The house they stumble into is an in-between.
Holloway’s play—in which Max and Henry get into a car accident mid-blizzard, seek solace in a remote home, and find therein a makeshift family of young children and their motherlike figure, Raleigh (Laurie Metcalf)—might be a comedic thriller, a fable about grief, or an issues play with a twist. Grey House sits in these in-betweens, but, wherever it lives, its uncanny and experimental qualities tie it to genres which—beyond the binaries of comedy and drama—are seldom explored on Broadway. Nonetheless, Grey House feels right at home in the Lyceum Theater, Broadway’s oldest. Spirits may greet you as you enter.
More frequently, Off-Broadway produces such spooky, surreal works. Recently, Lucas Hnath’s The Thin Place (Playwrights Horizons, 2019) also bridged the gap between mortals and the undead, making use of a prolonged blackout in which anything was possible; Aleshea Harris’s Is God Is (Soho Rep, 2018) traced two sisters’ murderous odyssey to confront their father, who is more specter than parent; Annie Baker’s John (Signature Theatre, 2015), similarly set at a phantasmal, aging home, was a haunted meditation on loneliness, even for its coupled characters; Philip Ridley’s Mercury Fur (The Tank, 2010) hosted a party in dystopian London at which torture is the main entertainment; and Sarah Kane’s landmark Blasted (Soho Rep, 2008) blended the atrocities of war with the intimacies of sex.
Grey House grows out of these traditions not only in its terrifying elements but also its linguistic rigor. Establishing a unique theatrical vocabulary that’s both precise and expansive, Holloway’s text invites you to use your mind but also turn it off: what if, instead of knowing all the answers and anticipating dramatic beats, you tapped into dream logic? Once there, will you let the dream become a nightmare?
The classical Western canon is full of plays that also use the macabre to augment drama—Hamlet sees the ghost of his father and may have slept with his mother; Oedipus definitely beds his and tears his eyes out—but, until they’ve been anointed, contemporary American works that are equally intellectual, grim, and unsettling might still be deemed risky, and as such unprofitable on Broadway, where jukebox musicals, revivals, and star casting reign. (Irish exports have defied these rules, including Conor McPherson’s plays and Martin McDonagh’s earlier ones, before Daniel Radcliffe and Billy Crudup lit up his marquees.)
Grey House may rely on a celebrity’s top billing to attract Broadway audiences, but it will also challenge them. The play is relentlessly adventurous. It is unclear who its heroes or villains are and leaves you itchy with more questions than answers. However, unlike on bizarre television shows such as Lost or Westworld, where the writers seemed to have forgotten referenced threads or unkindly led viewers down rabbit holes that wasted emotional investment, Holloway puppeteers his world with a winning ratio of access to enigma.
For starters, Scott Pask’s unit set looks familiar enough, recognizable in its domesticity but sneaky in its secrets. There’s a magical fridge, locomotive drawer, and foreboding pile of shoes—each of these is a question mark, yet they hide in plain sight.
Those shoes reveal a repeated history. As Max and Henry arrive at the house after their car wreck, which also broke Henry’s foot, Raleigh and her five “children” scurry to their rooms as if playing hide and seek. One by one, the children—puckish Marlow (Sophia Ann Caruso), clairvoyant Bernie (Millicent Simmonds), amiable A1656 (Alyssa Emily Marvin), fidgety Squirrel (Colby Kipnes), and a most innocent youth, known as The Boy (Eamon Patrick O’Connell)—come to greet the couple. They tend to Henry’s wound and remove his bloodied shoe, which The Boy tosses into a heap of others. Now, our sixth sense awakens. Henry is not the first to find his way to this creaky home.
Director Joe Mantello places that shoe pile house right. Some believe, because English speakers read left to right, that house left is the most powerful position on stage. That Henry, the lone adult male in a house full of women, finds his shoes thrown to the opposite end proves ominous.
And here, Max and Henry, amoeba-like, see themselves absorbed into a foreign ecosystem. Their questions—verbalized or silent but legible on their alarmed faces—reflect our own.
Was the deer Max and Henry’s car struck organic or bewitched? If cursed, why did Raleigh and her children lure in the couple? Is the jarred moonshine the family keeps feeding Henry an elixir or toxin—and why are they given years, like vintages, and men’s names, like brands? As we get to know the children, what does A1656 mean when she says she’s been fifteen for a while? How does time operate in this house, and—when Tom Gibbons’s sound cues rumble to punctuate scenes—how many hours or days have passed? Who is The Ancient (Cyndi Coyne), the cast’s ninth, silent, and eldest performer who roves the stage in Rudy Mance’s floor-length costumes that make her seem to hover? Why does her apparel mirror Squirrel’s? Speaking of mirroring, does The Boy mimic Henry’s movements to highlight the latter’s inner, sin-free child? Is Henry sinful? Why do the girls call The Boy “Mister Man,” and why does Marlow say he’s had dozens of other names? Have other boys been here? Do the children find the adults charming, or, like a reverse Hansel and Gretel, are the kids the captors and Max and Henry their prey? Are these children witches or runaways? What did they run from, and why is this house more secure?
These questions do not reflect Holloway’s writerly laziness but instead the opposite: he intends to offer just enough information to allow us to construct our own theories. With his crumbs, I may scrounge together tacos and you coq au vin, but neither of us would be incorrect. Clarity, or at least more clues, comes in the climactic scene, which behaves like a jigsaw puzzle’s corner piece, anchoring everything around it.
Raleigh and the children prepare Henry for a feast and ritual. As he drinks more of the moonshine and becomes increasingly delirious, the girls one by one blame him for their past abuses, horrific crimes that changed them on a molecular level. They share the year of these sins, which span the centuries. Is The Boy present at the table to witness this chastisement, and learn? Across the ages, is there always a Henry? A nice man capable of extreme mistreatment of women? Throughout the play, Henry and his physical injuries take up space; the women are never asked about theirs, which dig beneath the surface.
Grey, a color for grief. The house is a depository for it.
And what happens when a white man enters a marginalized person’s safe space? Holloway’s is also an identity play. Examining his own white maleness, he uses horror as a vehicle to demonstrate how women build community and react when its fragility is threatened. Here, there’s no grey area: Holloway shows the consequences of that disturbance can be harrowing.
As Henry’s—and mankind’s—punishment enters a final, sacrificial stage, Max struggles to look on. Like the heroine of another thriller, Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019), Max is mourning the loss of her family: her sister is dead, her father has recently passed, and she seeks, subconsciously, somewhere new to start a home. Did this desire decide her fate?
The house is grey as an in-between for its Max’s and Henry’s but also its residents. It is cyclical, always in flux, abiding by Newton’s third law of motion. A newcomer arrives; a resident departs. Earlier in the play, Raleigh asks Max if she has any kids. She tells her no, but Raleigh adds, as Metcalf’s eyes almost glint, “Life can surprise you.”
Always busy with laundry or cooking or reading The Boy bedtime stories, Raleigh at one point takes a breather at the kitchen table. Finally static, she tears up, reaching back to something lost, a heaviness that may have propelled her to find her way here. Attuned, Marlow offers to braid her hair. Raleigh’s sandy waves and Marlow’s jet black hair tell us these two are not biologically related, but their shared gentleness defies genetics.
Max’s arrival offers an opportunity to release Raleigh, who can go back into the world—to face her unspoken trauma? find a new family? complete the journey toward where she never arrived? Her bags are packed. With Max present and Henry’s ritual complete, she walks through the creaking door once more. The Boy then hugs Max, who decides to stay, but only after witnessing one final, convincing magic trick. Max responds to the supernatural with the quotidian: she cracks an egg and starts breakfast, no questions asked. She’s Mother, for now.