Theater Review: “Let the Right One In” — Me and My Vampire
By Bill Marx
The story has the earmarks of YA fiction: a community of dysfunctional adults contribute to the plight of alienated kids who, badgered by persecutors their own age, seek to escape their torment.
Let The Right One In by Jack Thorne. Based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist. Presented in special arrangement with Concord Theatricals. Directed by Christopher V. Edwards. Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project in collaboration with the Boston University School of Theatre at the Booth Theatre, 820 Commonwealth Avenue, through November 6.
According to Actors’ Shakespeare Project director Christopher V. Edwards, Swedish writer John Ajvde Lindqvist’s 2004 novel Let The Right One In has “inspired a number of adaptations: two films, an upcoming television series, a comic book, and a play.” I had not caught any of the manifestations of this vampire yarn until the ASP’s staging of Jack Thorne’s theater version, which premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in 2013. I see why this book has become a “hot” property — grisly horror infused into a skewed Romeo and Juliet “love” story, though there’s not much humor and the tragic deaths are of characters we barely get to know. Of course, that is the point. Lindqvist wants us to empathize with a pair of teen monsters because everything around them — adults, society, convention — turns out to be ineffectual if not hostile. (There is a well-meaning gym instructor — is it any surprise that no good deed goes unpunished?) So another reason for the tale’s success might be that, along with the attraction of things that go suck in the night, this is a deeply conservative narrative that suggests that those who are different are best left on their own.
In that sense, the story has the earmarks of YA fiction: a community of dysfunctional adults contribute to the plight of alienated kids who, badgered by persecutors their own age, seek to escape their torment. Here the twist is that Eli, a 200-year-old bloodsucker (who assumes an adolescent persona) falls in love with Oskar, a 12-year-old boy who comes from a broken home and is bedeviled by some very nasty bullies. Forbidden love sagas are a stage staple, but the inevitable theatrical stylization (how do you clean up geysers of blood?) cuts against the visceral power of the requisite vein openings. Thorne’s solution is to go full-on cinematic: he boils the story down to its skeletal elements, makes no more than one essential point per scene, and leaves in all the plot’s absurdities, such as a police inspector who blunders into a potentially dangerous situation without any backup. But that is part of the message: adults haven’t a clue to the hell some of these kids are going through. As for Eli and Oskar, their attraction feels less like love than mutual dependence. They are surrounded by enemies, so they are forced to save each other, sometimes, as in the climax at a swimming pool, via an unconvincing “cliffhanger” rescue.
The ASP production treats the play as an atmospheric exercise set in some sort of nowheresville. The novel takes place in a small Swedish town in 1981, which explains why there are no cellphones. (At least Oskar is spared cyberbullying.) The staging does not specify time or place, a decision that might be about making the story more poetically “universal.” (At one point, Oskar and his father play checkers [?] with white pieces on a white board. Wouldn’t Oskar, with his avid interest in a Rubik’s Cube, be into chess?) Instead of concrete realism, Edwards makes efficient use of balletic movement. The props and furniture are on wheels, gliding smoothly on- and off-stage. The idea, most likely, is to give the viewer the sense that we are swooping in and out of the action via long and medium shots. Despite this animation, the overall tone of the production is delicately dour, occasionally enlivened with the flickers of passion in the nurturing relationship between Oskar and Eli. The leads contribute compelling performances. Mishka Yarovoy supplies the more psychologically nuanced turn, his fidgets and vocal shadings convincingly boyish. Leah Hohauser is enticingly physical, moving with choreographic grace about the stage. But she can be a demon as well as a dancer: when Hohauser’s hands curve into claws and she arches her back — watch out! For me, the most discomforting moment in the production is when an agonized Hohauser, against her will, pounces on the ground to suck up a drop of blood.
The adult characters are types, with Sarah Newhouse’s Police Inspector Halmberg one of the more inept policemen I have encountered on stage. A man dies in the hospital — drained of blood via a puncture wound in the neck. Apparently, nobody on the force has seen a vampire flick. As Oscar’s alcoholic Mum, Deb Martin is suitably blind to what is happening around her. It is amusing to see veteran Richard Snee — armed with a stun gun thingy — on the hunt for human blood. I wish his Hakan looked as if he were having at least a little fun meeting Eli’s dietary requirements. But Snee, like the rest of the cast, is in deadly earnest — it is as if anything but sincerity would break the somber, supernatural spell. The potential for healthy black comedy is ignored.
Escape, rather than transformation, is the message of this and so many other teens-meet-horror dramas. And audiences/readers are fine with that because a spooky story like this one leaves the status quo unchallenged. But fashions might be changing. Dawn King’s provocative drama The Trials, which ran this year at London’s Donmar Warehouse, is set in the near future and has adolescents sitting on a jury and judging adults on the actions they took (or didn’t take) to mitigate the climate breakdown. Let’s have plays where the alienated kids don’t run away but stay put and demand accountability from the adults who have made such an unholy mess of things. Could anything be scarier?
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of the Arts Fuse. For four decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.