Imaginative direction, terrific performances, and an ingenious production design add up to engrossing theater as The Visceral Company presents the pair of one-acts that playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has somewhat awkwardly fused together as The Mystery Plays.

One-act Number One, The Filmmaker’s Journey, comes straight out of The Twilight Zone, from its Rod Serling-esque narrator known only as “Mister Mystery” to the supernatural twist this Strangers On A Train tale takes about midway through.

MYST PL photo 2 A minor character in The Filmmaker’s Journey then takes center stage in Ghost Children, a considerably less far-fetched psychological suspense drama that flashes back in time to a grisly triple murder whose memories still haunt the adult sister of the then teenaged killer.

So dissimilar are The Mystery Play’s two acts that one might easily assume that Aguirre-Sacasa wrote two unrelated short plays—and only after the fact reasoned that by turning the lawyer friend of Act One’s protagonist into the protagonist of Act Two, he’d end up with a more easily marketable full-length play.

Though it turns out that Ghost Children was indeed written as a companion piece to The Filmmaker’s Journey in Aguirre-Sacasa’s attempt to explore “questions about faith, forgiveness, the afterlife, and even the existence of God,” my guess is that many will find this thin thread a bit of a stretch.

Fortunately, whether or not you perceive a deeper-than-superficial connection between Acts One and Two matters little in the enjoyment of The Visceral Company’s compelling production, directed with inventiveness and flair by Christopher Basile.

MYST PL photo 1 The Filmmaker’s Journey stars New York-to-L.A. newcomer Michael Mraz as neurologist Nathan West, the stranger whom movie writer-director Joe Manning (Daniel Jimenez) meets cute on The Continental, “originating in the green hills of New Hampshire and terminating in Newport News.”

A shared passion for horror story writer H.P. Lovecraft is all the two 30ish men need to begin chatting with flirtatious undertones, ultimately agreeing to meet for brunch on New Year’s Day, about ten days hence.

MYST PL photo 6 In the meantime, Joe heads off to the café car to get them a couple of beers, upon which, in Joe’s words, “an external, invisible, deliberate … something” guides him outside onto the deserted platform just long enough for the train to take off for its next stop without him.

And then something quite horrific happens, an event which before long has propelled our hero into a Twilight Zone of haunting ghosts, tears of blood, and supernatural “sin-eaters”—and towards an ending that proves more cryptic than satisfying.

Things get considerably more down to earth in Ghost Children, whose “ghosts” turn out to be memories of a father, mother, and sister bludgeoned to death by teengaed Ben Gilley (Alex Taber) some fifteen years earlier.

Now thirty-two, Ben has written his younger sister Abby (Devereau Chumrau) in hopes that she will agree to testify on his behalf at a hearing appealing his sixty-year prison sentence.

Despite the siblings’ years of parental abuse, both physical and in Abby’s case sexual, and though Abby would likely have joined Ben in pummeling Daddy and Mommy’s noggins with a baseball bat, what Abby can never forgive is that her brother swung that same bloody bat at their eleven-year-old sister Becky, making her the innocent third victim of her brother’s rage.

Ulitmately, things turn out to be not nearly as straightforward as they initially seem, and Abby’s reluctance to testify on Ben’s behalf may come in part from feelings that she shares culpability in their young sister’s death.

Playwright Aguirre-Sacasa’s attempts to link Ben’s and Abby’s stories by making them lifelong best friends (and briefly lovers) and by having mysterious narrator Mister Mystery (Frank Blocker) introduce each tale turns out to be more gimmick than anything particularly profound.

Fortunately, this matters not all that much in this third L.A.-area production of The Mystery Plays, one that makes the absolute most of its source material while proving that clever direction and production design and topnotch performances can combine with an audience’s imagination to make for spellbinding theater even with a flawed script.

Scenic designer John Burton’s set is simple in the extreme, a bare black box with a pair of black side panels that can be swiveled out to meet centerstage, and a half-dozen or so benches of various sides, but oh how imaginatively director Basile uses these benches, having cast members rearrange them to form train and airplane seats, a casket, tombstones, a tree trunk, and more, that is when company members aren’t handing out props to The Mystery Play’s large cast of characters.

Ric Zimmerman’s inspired lighting design is integral to maintaining an air of mystery, suspense, and danger, and so is Dan Spurgeon’s atmospheric sound design, its Christmas melodies not only underscoring the action and reminding us of the play’s winter holiday setting but also making The Mystery Plays the perfect December show for those in search of something other than a more traditionally-themed Christmas production.

Of course, all of the above would come to naught without the marvelous cast assembled on the Lex Theatre stage, all of whom play multiple roles.

MYST PL photo 4 An excellent Jimenez takes Act One’s Joe from personable filmmaker to increasingly troubled survivor, then proves versatility in a pair of Act Two cameos. Mraz is equally fine as the object of Joe’s attraction turned ghostly visitor, and in his own second act vignettes.

MYST PL photo 3 In Act Two, a superb Chumreau digs deep into Abby’s pain, guilt, and regret, having already impressed in Act One as Joe’s sister and as a southern belle with a surprise connection to the mysterious Nathan. As Ben, recent Texas-to-L.A. transplant Taber makes a strong impression too with his boy-next-door charm and matching acting chops, clearly differentiating between troubled teen and remorseful adult, this after a couple of nifty Act One cameos.

MYST PL photo 5 Last but definitely not least are The Mystery Plays’ two most chameleon-like players. Blocker gives Mister Mystery just the right mellifluous tones, sounding nothing at all like his pair of train conductors’ spot-on N’Hampshah (or thereabouts) accents or his no-nonsense delivery as a pair of lawmen or his folksy cemetery caretaker. Laura Julian, having proven her comedic gifts in a pair of Theatre 68 laugh-getters, now gets to show off matching dramatic chops as a grieving mother, a warm-hearted teacher, a passionate public defender, and best of all as Joe’s tough-broad agent with ballsy New York accent and attitude.

Rosie Santilena is stage manager. Benjamin Shipley is board operator. The Mystery Plays is produced by Drew Blakeman and Spurgeon.

With its dedication to producing theatre and films in the horror, thriller, and sci-fi genres, The Visceral Company has staked out its own unique niche in the Los Angeles theater scene. The Mystery Plays not only fits neatly into these genres, it has enough purely theatrical appeal to cross over into mainstream territory. The Visceral Company’s latest could hardly be more welcome counter-programming to L.A. theater’s usual holiday fare.

Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Ave., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
December 21, 2013
Photos: Jeremy Andorfer

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