With cellphones off and no chance to call 911, the audience faces the ground floor interior of an old wood house in Seattle, strewn with packing boxes, the bannister of a staircase turning up and away from the tableaux of figures facing each other at the doorway, one in bright daylight, the next in darkness, as the grandfather clock tolls the hour.
The play of Finn in the Underworld begins on Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage with quick alternation: light and dark, female and male pairs, reunion and first meeting.
Two middle-aged sisters, Rhonda (Randy Danson) and Gwen (Lorrie Holt), reunite querulously over packing up the remnants of life in their family’s house, coming back together in their home town after their mother’s move to a retirement home to close up the old place for sale.
Meanwhile—or meantime? The times are staggered—Gwen’s 20-something son Finn (Clifton Guterman) is following up a chance meeting with a tryst with an old neighbor and friend of the family, Carver (Reed Birney). Later it will turn into a homoerotic makeout session as a bare lightbulb swings from the ceiling of a cellar room-cum-bomb shelter where “people just don’t go.” It is a place where many sexual games have been played over the years, from Carver playing “doctor” with Finn’s aunt Rhoda to more deadly secret “fun.”
The two parallel lines of telling the story converge, break apart again and reconverge, going over the same ground. There are many repetitions, deadly hints that seem to become explicit, then ambiguous again. In the balance hangs the fate of Carver’s brother, of Carver himself, the role of Finn’s grandfather in their fate, what Rhode and Gwen knew or saw and how it made them what they all have become. The inference and implications strain the edges of the story. The canvas doesn’t broaden, but bends, folds, turning inward. The house itself seems to swallow up the family with its secrets, like a cannibal parent devouring its progeny.
The Rep offers up this Halloween treat more like a trick, with a parental advisory over the heavy petting and hints at the joys of asphyxiation. It’s a socio-psychological spook show, with back-and-forth role playing by the cast (who perform it well, especially Randy Danson). It is a kind of psychodrama/mock lecture on the aura of fear in the days of bomb shelters and “normal” nuclear families.
Playwright Jordan Harrison has remarked that the film The Haunting (by Robert Wise, who died last month) was an influence on his characterization of the house, and that the crazy non-Euclidean geometry of storylines that converge in the second part owes something to his teacher, playwright Paula Vogel and her maxim “that each play should fall apart in pursuit of its aesthetic goal. That there’s a place in each play where once the audience learns the rules, you should start to twist them a little bit.”
This seems to be in the great tradition of horror, always an erotic medium (as the word “nightmare” has come to imply). Personifications of houses, their identity with family secrets, go back to the allegories of the Middle Ages, surface again in the Baroque and in the gothic tale, as modernized (and burlesqued) by Poe (“The Fall of the House of Usher,” most famously—or, awful with incest and black humor, “Berenice”).
There’s a whole strain of American theater and film dedicated to the haunted house, such as George M. Cohan’s Seven Keys to Baldpate and Roland Young’s remarkable film The Bat Whispers, whose success and moody style and techniques were snapped up by the horror and suspense genre, like Tod Browning’s Dracula and Mark of the Vampire and Hitchcock’s atmospherics.
But these old potboilers had a hidden sophistication in their theatricality. They could send up their own melodrama knowingly, use the very double standard that provided the dilemmas for their shockers and cliffhangers to make a kind of irony of middle class morality. There’s a good reason why Surrealists pirated gothic kitsch. Luis Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel, where a corrupt bunch of bourgeois seem unable to quit the house of their reveling, is an artistic triumph of an old trouper’s method for squeezing an old plot for juice, blood from a stone.
Finn in the Underworld remains more intriguing than frightening or revelatory. It identifies and comments on the problem rather than playing it. There’s something a little academic in its fooling around with storytelling conventions; the horror gets swallowed up by them rather than conveyed.
Jordan Harrison has a dowser’s instinct for where that horror is, but there is more poignancy in his comment that “before it takes a turn for the worse, it’s a weird love story—or a last-ditch attempt for connection, at least,” than what the play itself can muster. Something’s off in the emphasis, as in the accent, when he remarks, “I want to make people scared of the dark.”
Lorri Holt, Randy Danson, Clifton Guterman and Reed Birney in the world premiere of Jordan Harrison’s Finn in the Underworld at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.a