Review: Hunger & Thirst Theatre Asks You to Trust "Strangers in the Night"

Strangers in the Night

Frank's monologues, written by Philip Estrera;

Screwed, written by Patricia Lynn, directed by Caitlin Davies;

Bottling Dreams of the Tearful Don't-Knower, written by Emily Kitchens, directed by Paul Kite

Presented by Hunger & Thirst Theatre at The West End Theatre

263 W 86th St., Manhattan, NYC

October 11-26, 2019

Patrick T. Horn and Patricia Lynn. Photo by Al Foote III.
Much as we say that everyone is the hero of their own story, we might say that no one is the stranger. Each stranger, points out Frank (Jordan Kaplan), whose monologues frame and transition between the two short plays that make up Hunger & Thirst Theatre's new production, Strangers in the Night, has their own story. A person's story, though, he specifies, includes both what and who has happened to that person, and it will inevitably include changes wrought by strangers. These and related ideas loosely link Patricia Lynn's fantastic Screwed, inspired by Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, with Emily Kitchens's absurdist Bottling Dreams of the Tearful Don't-Knower; and, taken together, the three parts of Strangers in the Night make for a whole that is by turns intense, funny, touching, and surprising.

Last year at this time, Patricia Lynn's Your Invisible Corset (reviewed by us here) presented an updated, female-focused reimagining of Bram Stoker's Dracula, and her Screwed offers another impressive feminist reinvention of a canonical (male) text. Lynn borrows some of the bones of James's notoriously ambiguous novella about a governess's conviction that her charges, Miles and Flora, are being haunted by her predecessor and her lover. Screwed finds governess Molly (Patricia Lynn), employed by the wealthy and powerful Mr. Douglas (Brandon J. Vukovic), accused of murdering 13 year-old Miles, who, with Flora, was in her care. The children's previous governess, Jessie, had drowned in what was ruled a suicide, and there are ghost stories attached to the house connected to a much older pair of drownings in the same spot. In defiance of the well-connected Mr. Douglas, police officer Peter (Patrick T. Horn), motivated by a connection to Jessie, wants to give Molly a chance to tell her version of events to him so that he can, he promises, help her.

Molly's skepticism about Peter's offer illuminates one of the central lines of critique in Screwed: when Peter says that he will believe her story no matter how unbelievable it seems, Molly counters that cops never believe a woman "no matter what." Later, when Peter expresses his own skepticism, insisting that Jessie would have told him what Molly has learned, Molly reminds him that women "don't usually tell when something like that is happening to us." The contemporary real-life parallels, high-profile and otherwise, are almost too ubiquitous to need pointing out. Screwed also replaces the sexual transgression associated with the haunting in James with something more like toxic male behavior—assuming that when the play puts audience members in the position of questioning Molly as a completely reliable narrator and denies them simple certainty, they nevertheless decide to believe, or at least take seriously, the woman who opened herself to doubt by talking about her experience. Lynn and Horn hold the stage alone for most of the play and their performances, set against the soft but ever-present sound of rainfall and the occasional flicker of the lights, are superb, with Lynn's Molly weary but resilient, prickly but vulnerable, jousting compellingly with Horn's Peter and his good intentions mixed with blind spots.

Philip Estrera and Dillon Heape. Photo by Al Foote III
After a transition in which Frank takes up uncertainty, among other things, and makes very cool use of a cell phone, the scene shifts to a pool in a forest for Bottling Dreams of the Tearful Don't-Knower, which establishes a different tone from the claustrophobic intensity of Screwed. A relatively buttoned-up unnamed man (Dillon Heape; think tucked-in plaid) filling small bottles from the pool with an eye-dropper is approached by a less conventionally-dressed man (Philip Estrera; think furry jacket with a unicorn on the back). Although the first man regards the second as a stranger and the stranger's assertion that it is "never too late" with contempt, rather than tell him to leave (the question of telling someone to leave becomes a motif), he asks if they should kiss. Following a dramatic escalation of their intimacy, the first man explains that he is collecting tears because his "other half" (Natalie Hegg) can no longer produce them herself (he, we learn later, cries easily and often). The Other Half's loss of function in her tear ducts is linked to her illness, and Hegg has an excellent monologue, delivered while hooked up to an IV drip for pain management, in which she explains that the man is her rock and that she sometimes also wants him to just go away. How, she asks, among other musings fragmented by her medication, does one let go and hold on at the same time? Meanwhile, the man resists the second man's desire to become a third of and in the man and woman's relationship, as well as the suggestion that they enjoy their own pretend world in the woods. This sort of intimacy, it seems, would muddy his sense of clear purpose and duty. The Other Half, though, leaves behind her IV and heads for a meeting with the pair.

Natalie Hegg. Photo by Al Foote III
Between the various scenes, screens embedded in twin towers of electronic detritus accompany streams of associative wordplay with evocative images, sometimes humorous, sometimes unsettling. At different points, each character also sings a snatch of characterologically appropriate song, including "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Do You Love Me?" The conversations between the men are sometimes reminiscent of something from an Ionesco play, and Estrera and Heape ably balance their characters' nonchalant acceptance of the absurd with an underlying, relatable, and flawed humanity. Hegg is as good in a late, splendidly observed description of an affair with a "rough ocean boy" as she is in her monologue. 

Jordan Kaplan. Photo by Al Foote III
Frank's own final monologue takes things in a direction that we won't spoil here except to say that it will probably ring true for a lot of New Yorkers. New Yorkers, of course, live in paradoxically intimate contact with seas of strangers, and Strangers in the Night asks us to consider how we and they shape the stories that we live and that we choose to tell, including about ourselves. It also asks us to consider our unknown neighbors beyond the bounds of the plays and the walls of the theater: at performances, Hunger & Thirst Theatre is collecting both food donations and monetary donations for the Pay It Forward Foundation. On stage and off, Strangers in the Night is a great reason to sit in the dark for 90 minutes with a room full of people you don't know. 

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards


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