Al Foote

Strangers in the Night

Reviewer's Rating

Strangers in the Night aptly begins with a melancholy horn rendition of Frank Sinatra’s same-named ballad. And then Frank steps onstage – no, not Sinatra, but Frank the narrator, the prophet-like figure played by Jordan Kaplan who starts as a stranger to us all. By the time he’s done walking us through the stories of six other characters and his own self, he ends – well, perhaps as a stranger still, or perhaps a little more. That’s for you to decide.

Frank is the glue (or the “transition,” as he calls himself) that physically connects the two one-acts within Strangers, as the throughline of emotional intimacy between strangers thematically links them. Following an introduction that includes all but Frank’s name and ends with his exhortation to “trust a stranger,” we enter a haunted house in “middle-of-nowhere Connecticut” to witness the events of Screwed. Patricia Lynn’s play is set amidst the murder investigation of a 13-year-old boy, for which the governess Molly (Lynn) is the prime suspect. The investigator Peter (Patrick T. Horn) happens to be the brother of the previous governess, who also died under sinister circumstances. He can only get information about both deaths out of Molly if he swears to believe her story – which, due to the involvement of the supernatural and other complications, is (to put it mildly) tricky.

By way of exchanges such as “[Molly,] I’ll believe you no matter what;” “In my experience, cops never believe a woman ‘no matter what,’” Screwed bleeds with #MeToo undertones and raw angst. The arrival of Molly’s employer, Mr. Douglas (Brandon J. Vukovic), to pit his word against hers only intensifies the parallel. Lynn and Horn are especially arresting in their roles – each word they say gives the impression that one more will blow out the little lamplight there is with sheer force. They serve Strangers’ purpose excellently, making clear the bond between their characters with tangible chemistry. Not in a romantic sense, but a soulful one. Discovering the rage of the undead with someone isn’t something you walk away from as strangers.

And just like that, Frank appears again to diffuse the tension, turning the attention to Bottling Dreams of the Tearful Don’t-Knower, the second vignette. Emily Kitchens’ work follows the Man (Dillon Heape) collecting tears for his “Other Half” (Natalie Hegg – his wife, though he won’t call her that) from a pool in the woods. He meets another man, known only as “the Stranger” (Philip Estrera), and they begin a relationship that throws the Man into inner chaos.

Though superbly and thoughtfully acted – Estrera’s flamboyant and energetic Stranger is a standout – Bottling pales in ferocity and efficacy to Screwed. It’s unclear whether the forest is meant to be some kind of metaphor, or where the whole scenario rests in space and time. Perhaps that’s the point, but it makes for a confusing viewing experience. That said, the awakening of the Man’s sexual identity awakens something visceral in Heape and the audience. Hegg’s later appearance – off on the side of the stage, distanced from the central action in a clear display of removal and loneliness – makes the theme more poignant. It’s often hard to tell what she or the men are trying to articulate, but whatever emotion each character is feeling at any time, one can sense it clearly. Bottling fulfills the intimacy-between-strangers theme of Strangers through the affair between the Man and the Stranger, but what’s most worth noting is the intimacy it fosters between the characters and the audience – letting us in, almost voyeuristically, to the events in this hidden forest and providing a deep, subliminal relationship with characters we may not even understand.

And finally, Frank floats in once more, sits on the stage, and tells a snippet of his own story. He has the flair of a stand-up comedian, telling a mundane story about ordering cake at a bar with animation and wit. Until that point, I had found his interludes enjoyable but unnecessary, but Kaplan shines in this final moment, devoid of philosophical musings and his air of detachment. The simplicity and authenticity of his storytelling in his place provides a neat, slow stop to the roller coaster ride of Strangers in the Night – the one acts’ intensity still leaves a mark, but it gives way to a final moment of calm. The stories have been shared, the characters bared, and in a meta way, the show has embodied its own purpose: brought disparately-written one acts together with Frank and the audience, each entity a stranger of sorts, into one whole with a shared connection. I can’t find a label to put on my new relationship with these entities as a result, but all the characters – and every character I’ve ever watched onstage, I now believe – are no longer people I would call strangers.