One fateful day, a 12-year-old girl left her Bronx apartment to buy a notebook at the store. When she found that she did not have enough money, her third-floor neighbor suggested that she call her mother from her apartment. Naïvely, the girl obliged, and soon found herself knocked out and tied to a bed in the boiler room of their building. Desi Moreno-Penson's terrifying play Devil Land, at Urban Stages, is a reimagining of this real-life incident with a supernatural twist. A green monster that the kidnapped girl, Destiny (Paula Ehrenberg), refers to as the Grinch watches over her from within the rusty yellow boiler, scratching at the metal whenever it appears her captors, Americo (Miguel Sierra) and Beatriz (playwright Desi Moreno-Penson), might harm her.
The stage is set to confine both the characters and audience in an uncomfortably small, inescapable space. The boiler room is dark and dreary, with boards covering the windows, a coiled chain in the corner, and a neatly made, flat gray cot. Before the play starts, we hear ominous music that foreshadows doom with every heavy note.
There is an underlying symbolism in everything that happens in Devil's Land, which can help ease the tension if you focus more on that than the reality of the situation. Destiny is more than just a pigtailed girl in peril; she has clairvoyant powers passed down to her from her Taíno ancestors. The Taínos were Indians who inhabitated the Greater Antilles and the Bahamas, and their culture was nearly destroyed under Spanish colonization during the 16th century. Destiny embraces the spirituality that comes with being a member of the clan, never allowing her captors to erode her faith.
Her character represents the enslaved Taínos, who were like innocent children in their trusting of the world and others in it. In this respect, Americo and Beatriz personify those who tortured the Taínos in a violent attempt to change their beliefs. When Destiny asserts that her own spirit cannot be broken, Beatriz decides to kill what she can't convert. The climax involves an internal struggle on Americo's part to go along with this, while Beatriz spirals into a hysterical state, eagerly listing all the gruesome ways she would like to kill the little girl while she lies helplessly on the bed, drugged into a deep sleep.
The three characters who hold this piece together are terrific actors. Sierra has a great moment where he shifts from his realistic portrayal of a man beaten down by life into a fantastical character who moves and talks quite differently. Moreno-Penson is spine-chilling as a mentally unstable, maniacally religious woman capable of snapping at any given moment. And Ehrenberg, an adult actress, is fully convincing as a wide-eyed 12-year-old struggling to make sense of her horrific situation while maintaining a sense of mystery about whether her ability to converse with ghosts and the Grinch is real or a drug-induced delusion.
But at times Devil Land tends to go beyond scary and into the realm of the nightmarishly disturbing. It is hard to find comfort in the fact that a protective green monster is watching over Destiny when we see her chained to the bed, fighting off sexual advances from Americo and physically harmed by Beatriz in a violent scene that ends with a quick fade to black with the lingering sound of a child's terrorized scream.
However, for adults who enjoy a good hair-raising, spine-tingling tale, the technical elements of Devil Land are perfectly crafted, especially the flashes of yellow light and booming thunder that punctuate the story's most frightening moments seconds before we anticipate them happening. With its finely tuned acting, tightly plotted story, and shocking special effect in its final moments, Devil Land has all the ingredients for a petrifying thriller.