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An enormous crescent moon hangs on high as a pterodactyl swoops across the stage at the outset of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s comic nightmare, The Velvet Sky. A dark domestic fantasy designed to spook any adult who’s ever considered parenting, Woolly Mammoth’s world premiere is about dream-haunting predators, protective impulses, and the moment at which childhood innocence cracks wide open.
Look closely, and you’ll see hairline fractures in the 20-foot-high, fairy-tale moon that designer Scott Bradley has hung above the stage. And as the pterodactyl tugs aside a black cloth, revealing a storybook household in which a very real mom, Bethany Palmer (Jeanine Serralles), croons lullabies about how there’s time to take on the world, by and by, you’ll note a crack in her home as well. It runs along the floor, up through the couch she’s sitting on, past the window and across the ceiling—a rift in the hermetically sealed world she’s crafted around her son Andrew (Matthew Stadelmann).
Bethany has stayed stubbornly awake for more than a decade, convinced that only through unceasing watchfulness can she protect Andrew from evil—specifically from the sleep-inducing Sandman, who in her telling of the fairy tale, tries to steal the eyes of innocent preteens. Her vigilance has nearly shepherded her son past adolescence, but tonight, on the eve of Andrew’s 13th birthday, that ominous crack in the foundation of her secure home widens into a chasm. Her husband Warren (Will Gartshore) bursts in to announce that he can no longer put up with her paranoia-driven insomnia, and that he is taking Andrew away for his own protection.
If Bethany’s a little wacky, Warren, a policeman who doesn’t seem to have a problem with kidnapping his own son, is hardly more balanced, and despite the protective noises both are making, it is reasonable to wonder how far from this bent family tree the apple of their eye is likely to fall. Warren spends the trip to Gotham warning his son not about storybook villains but the real-world dangers lurking there. To his distress, as he describes a Port Authority Bus Terminal crawling with creeps “who want to do things to each other in the night,” Andrew’s eyes widen in what looks alarmingly like anticipation. Too much protection, it seems, can whet a boy’s appetite for adventure, and when dad steps out of the car for doughnuts, Andrew slips away to explore Manhattan on his own.
Aguirre-Sacasa, a D.C. native whose career has taken off since he moved to New York, almost always toys with the supernatural in his work (besides plays, he writes for Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four and Spider-Man series). So while Andrew’s adventures take him to a Port Authority restroom, a porn theater, a dance club, and a variety of other spots where a plucky, self-possessed 12-year-old’s innocence might reasonably be considered at risk, the threats and challenges he faces aren’t necessarily of this world. Meanwhile, a panicked Bethany and Warren separately try to use what they know of their son’s enthusiasms—for kiddie fables, dinosaurs, and the like—to track him. Might he have gone to the Natural History Museum? To the Plaza in search of Eloise? It’s a race against time, and along with the threats that now haunt Andrew—all embodied with a squirm-inducing creepiness by Rick Foucheux—the playwright has supplied amusingly worldly distractions to sidetrack his parents.
A policeman and his identical twin, costumed as a policeman for an acting audition (both played by Michael Russotto), prove perplexing to Bethany, who keeps reminding herself as she encounters them that the side effects of sleeplessness include “poor concentration, cloudy judgment, and auditory and visual hallucinations.” A frazzled Warren runs into a Wiccan (Dawn Ursula), who had a crush on him in high school and suggests a Tarot reading to help find his son. And all the while, their son is discovering that fairy-tale villains can seem very real in the big city.
Rebecca Bayla Taichman’s staging uses Tim Burton–esque props and Colin K. Bills’ exquisitely eerie lighting to whip up a fever dream of a Manhattan for this fractured family to traipse through. As projected cityscapes establish locations, she sends lit-from-within urinals flying down from the heavens, floats a storybook lighthouse on a tide of parental terror, and marches characters up a steep staircase to the moon. She also reinterprets horror-movie tropes in intriguing ways, lending a distinctive staginess to the menace of heavy breathing on a cell phone, or of giant spidery hands clutching at characters from the darkness.
And for about 85 of The Velvet Sky’s 90 minutes, she and a persuasive cast keep Aguirre-Sacasa’s fantastical chase-nightmare racing past psychological stumbling blocks and into the audience’s collective un-conscious, triggering laughs, fears, and that sense of helplessness that comes of realizing that the world really is a scary place—and that protecting the ones you love isn’t always possible. Then, in the evening’s final moments, the author reveals a down-to-earth threat lurking behind all the spookily otherworldly theatrics, and the air of realism that has been so painstakingly pumped out of the auditorium, leaving the audience exuberantly light-headed, suddenly rushes back in.
Issues that didn’t matter moments earlier—Mom and Dad were both damaged by their own parents, but we’re only told how as regards one of them—abruptly prompt questions. Plausibility rears its previously irrelevant head, and where we’ve been giddily receptive to all manner of outlandish invention all evening, we suddenly want to know whys and wherefores. Most of the answers Aguirre-Sacasa provides prove a tad too on-the-nose. Left quasi-mythic, his paradigms—mother, father, child, even predator—are provocative, their motives intriguing. Made everyday, they quickly become the stuff of melodrama.
And instead of innocence fractured and a family cleft in twain, it’s the play that feels cracked. Great start, though.CP