Constance Wu is haunted in eerie ‘2:22 A Ghost Story’

Constance Wu is haunted in eerie ‘2:22 A Ghost Story’

The new Danny Robbins play offers thrills, chills, and some philosophizing.

Author Maureen Lee Lenker

What is a ghost really? A supernatural terror, a manifestation our fear or our sorrow, something benign or far less sinister?

This is the question at the heart of 2: 22 A Ghost Story, the spectral thriller now making its U.S. premiere at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theater.

Jenny (Constance Wu) is being haunted — each night at 2: 22 a.m., she hears what she believes is a ghost circling her baby’s crib and crying. But when her husband, Sam (Finn Wittrock), returns home from a business trip and they welcome old friend Lauren (Anna Camp) and her contractor boyfriend Ben (Adam Rothenberg) for dinner, beliefs are challenged and old wounds are exposed.

2: 22 – A Ghost Story

Danny Robbins’ script wants to both probe the very nature of haunting, and the cultural value of ghosts, while also delivering up some genuine scares in the process. Sam, a logical and rational person, faces Jenny’s certainty about what she’s seen. Sam tries to get Lauren and Ben to join him in an evening that tests their faith (and their relationships).

The play may want to have its ghostly cake, and eat it as well. Is it a philosophical argument or a horror story. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Horror has been a genre that allows us to project and probe the most important questions of our lives (and the societal bugsaboos). The play fails to strike the right balance between these two goals. Its conclusion, while satisfying the horror narrative and slightly invalidating its central provocative questions, never seems to achieve that balance. This may be more Robbins’ writing fault than Matthew Dunster’s direction. Wittrock and Rothenberg are as grounded and believable in their portrayals of Sam and Ben. However, the women do not fare so well. One has to wonder if Dunster is better at directing men. Both Camp and Wu come across as a bit histrionic. It’s almost as if their desire for playing to the rafters, which is admittedly a difficult task in the Ahmanson, overshadows everything else. Their performances have a strong whiff if “acting” with an A.

2: 22 – A Ghost Story

Rothenberg — though the least recognizable name of the four as a Ozark season 4 series regular — is the show’s ace in the hole. His blue-collar believer, who is often dryly funny and indignant at times, is vociferously dedicated to the truths he believes. His Boston accent is so precise that it gives him a sense of place and time that is not available to the other characters. The other three characters are almost ghosts, floating through the action. Rothenberg is the only grim presence.

Wittrock is a charming, confident Sam. He sells the smug, non-believer act to an eagle eye. But one has to wonder what Jenny saw in him.

Camp and Wu become more comfortable with their roles as the play escalates in terror. The first act can feel like they are reciting a script. The second act offers something for them to chew on. Both arrive at cataclysmic highs and carry that feeling with them with shock and awe.

2: 22 – A Ghost Story

The show’s design is deceptively effective, the cavernous set design of Anna Fleischle giving the characters a disturbingly cold and empty space in which to traffic. It is a strange design that feels alien, the gap between the living room and kitchen feeling unsettling, yet creeping into the audience’s mind.

Above it all hovers a menacing red digital clock that counts down to the titular 2: 22 with a perpetual dread. It’s a great hook. It’s a blinking reminder of the moment characters and audience are waiting with bated breath for. It’s not clear if the characters can see the clock. This makes it an even more chilling presence that is ticking away to the moment of truth.

Sound is a major factor in creating scares. We hear what we hear and what we don’t. There are also pregnant pauses and other things that happen in the night. Autograph’s sound design by Ian Dickinson is nothing short of terrifying. It is a shriek that tears apart the scene and makes the audience jump out of their seats. Although the show’s coyote howls may be more comical than rousing, the subtle use of diegetic sounds helps to sell the many effects that dot the action.

2: 22 – A Ghost Story

2: 22 A Ghost Story posits one explanation for hauntings — that of an experience akin to a Facebook memory, a reminder of an existence, a past that burns brighter in one’s consciousness for the brief moment it is presented to you. It’s a wonderful idea, far friendlier than the malicious intentions a poltergeist.

But ultimately, 2: 22 is less about what and why someone believes (there’s a potent undercurrent here of gaslighting and the trenchant difficulties women face getting men to believe them) than it sets out to be. It’s truly scary and haunting in the literal sense. But the script is rife with plot holes and some persnickety pacing challenges (it’d probably be more effective as a 100 minute rollercoaster with no intermission). The ending is both shocking and terrifying, but it eliminates much of the most interesting philosophizing.

The play is at its core a terrifying theatrical experience. However, it is also deeply invested in metaphysical questions about belief and the need to project our fears and loss onto a spectral presence. It eventually moves away from the larger questions of why ghosts exist and whether it is necessary to search for an answer. It fails to realize that life’s most haunting questions are those for which there are no easy answers. B

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