"Sometimes the scariest monster in the world is the guy sitting next to you in the dark," says a character in the first of four unsettling one-acts by emerging playwrights in Dread Awakening. The two scariest plays of the evening exploit that idea to nerve-jarring effect. In the first, Bloody Mary by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, a teenager scares his girlfriend out of her wits as they drive down a deserted road at night. In the other, Sleep Mask by Eric Sanders, a black facemask becomes the device that drives a woman to hysterical fear of her husband. Each play keeps us on tenterhooks with hard-to-predict plot lines and quicksilver shifts of mood and tempo.
The four plays together demonstrate how solid writing and acting are the essential ingredients of all good theater, including the theater of horror. The temptation to indulge in special effects must have been great, but the design team for the four dramas, which each have different directors, is notable for its restraint and nuance. The 45th Street Theater's cavernous black box provides a fitting backdrop.
Bloody Mary, nimbly directed by Pat Diamond, begins in the dark with the disembodied voice of a man saying "Bloody Mary" over and over. Our fears are temporarily allayed when the stage lights switch on to reveal Ben (the handsome and chipper Jedadiah Schultz) reciting the phrase as his ditsy girlfriend (Christianna Nelson) applies lipstick. "How many was that?" Ben asks, explaining how, following the child's game, he is trying to conjure a blood-soaked Mary.
The allusions to classic horror movies come at us fast and furious. The pair, both horror movie buffs, are off to Shadow Lake to film a "mockumentary" about the slaughter of camp counselors on the site of an Indian burial ground. Even the night drive, as Ben tells Amy, mirrors the opening sequence from the Twilight Zone movie. But Aguirre-Sacasa, who writes for Marvel Comics, recycles these clichés in such a playful and ironic way that the audience is kept guessing—and exhilarated—right through to the 49th and final recitation of Bloody Mary's name.
Likewise Sleep Mask keeps us debating whether what we are watching is truly appalling or just a bizarre misunderstanding with the potential for tragic consequences. Annie (Jenny Gammello) awakens from a nightmare to find her husband James (Joe Plummer) next to her wearing a skin-tight leather mask. Uncertain whether she is awake or still dreaming, she demands that he remove the mask. He refuses, insisting that it's a sleep mask to keep his skin soft and wrinkle-free. The play, directed by Amanda Charlton, veers from black comedy to horror and back.
The other two plays fall short in different ways. A love triangle works itself out in a predictable, though disturbing, fashion in Treesfall by Justin Swain. Director Jessica Davis-Irons has encouraged flat, high-contrast performances from her actors, but more ambiguity and shading might have given the story more power.
Directed by Arin Arbus, Pearls, the shortest and slightest of the four plays, is a monologue delivered by a creepy dentist (Robert Funaro), who plays out sexual fantasies on a lovely client as she lies etherized before him. Playwright Clay McLeod Chapman slowly reels viewers into his tale, keeping us in suspense about its meaning and then embarking on a devilish flight of fancy about sexual arousal via a woman's teeth. The play is over, however, before it has set off much more than a frisson of revulsion in the audience.
Whatever its small flaws, the evening fulfills its title's promise. These four plays awaken our dread.