By Stanford Friedman
Nothing complements the Halloween season like a creepy psychological thriller, so playwright Owen Panettieri and a skilled trio of actors have arrived just in time with their dark and eerie world premiere, The Lights Are On. Panettieri sticks three jittery oddballs in a haunted house and leaves it to the audience to decide who among them is the biggest victim, the worst tormenter, the most insane. Are the alien noises and animalistic rumblings outside the door and in the walls to be truly feared? Is the terror coming from inside the house? Or worse, from inside their heads?
The play is set at a time described as, “a little further on from now,” so, not a post-apocalyptic landscape, but more a world in which you wouldn’t want to plant a backyard garden or, in the case of Liz (Danielle Ferland), a place never to venture into again. Indeed, it has been years since she has stepped outside her home. But rather than having become a spooky Miss Havisham, she has turned into a kooky survivalist, packing the shelves with food and medical supplies because, after all, we are “just one tragedy away from being completely wiped out.” She seems happy enough in her bubble, but then comes the ever ominous knock at the door. Her first impulse is to grab a gun, well, maybe a knife. She calms down though after realizing that it is just her neighbor, Trish (Jenny Bacon).
The two women have not seen each other in seven years – time flies when you’re neurotic – so there is a lot of catching up to do. It turns out Trish is just as off-center, and damaged, as Liz, but in contrasting ways. While Liz won’t go out, Trish is scared of going in, having seen a light on in her own house and a shadow figure at her window. Trish is willowy and outwardly quirky, prone to time warps and hallucinations, and a bit of a drunken flirt. Liz is like a once solid dam that has sprung a few leaks. She’ll calmly point out that there is food cooking on the stove when clearly there is not, she’ll offer a cup of tea, then serve wine instead, without comment.
Both ladies have also been wrecked by the loss of their spouses. Liz’s husband died in an unsavory and not fully explained incident. “Violated and left for dead on the side of the road,” as she puts it. Trish lost her rich husband, Richard, in an ugly divorce wherein he took possession of their son, Jeremy. Both father and son have had nothing to do with her ever since, driven away by Trish’s anger. Liz’s twenty-something son, Nathan (Marquis Rodriguez) is still around though, working a day job, buying Liz’s groceries, and acting as her caretaker while trying to keep his boyfriend from breaking up with him. He arrives home to find Liz and Trish in their strange interlude and before long we begin to suspect that he, too, is something less than normal. He is weirdly at ease changing out of his work clothes in front of Trish, quietly evil in a bit of game play with her, and decidedly dreadful when we learn his future plans.
Director Sarah Norris and the on-point creative team excel at building a sense of chaos under a patina of calm. Every beat is just a little off kilter, every prop just a little bit odd. A chessboard has pieces that are red and white. A wall clock fails to keep time. Subtle costume changes occur without cause. A cupboard opens from the wrong side.
Rodriguez parcels out Nathan’s bursts of anger like landmines sequentially going off under pressure. Meanwhile, the chemistry cooked up by Ferland and Bacon is delightfully tense as they balance their characters’ jealousies against their past friendship and uncertain future, proving that opening a door to a neighbor doesn’t mean that you’re not unhinged.
The Lights Are On – By Owen Panettieri; directed by Sarah Norris.
WITH: Danielle Ferland (Liz), Jenny Bacon (Trish) and Marquis Rodriguez (Nathan).
Scenic design by Brian Dudkiewicz, lighting design by Kelley Shih, costume design by Kara Branch, sound design by Janet Bentley. New Light Theater Project, in association with Embeleco Unlimited, at Theatre Row, 410 W 42nd St. https://bfany.org/theatre-row/shows/the-lights-are-on/. Through November 11. Running time: 95 minutes