We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Success! You're on the list.

A 2-year-old Tony winner and a much-despised 34-year-old allegory opened at local theaters last week. Guess which play seems fresher.

Mind you, And Things That Go Bump in the Night could hardly be described as a pleasant evening. The nightmare vision of Terrence McNally’s first major work is calculated to set teeth on edge, and the American Century Theater’s brave but sometimes awkward staging at Gunston Arts Center may occasionally be too successful in that regard. But the play and the production ask—dare—audiences to engage, to wonder what and why, to dissect their own characters in light of what they see in the grim world onstage.

And it is something of a self-contained world, a basement bunker secure behind a locked door and a high-voltage fence, populated by a family of five. The playbill says this is “your neighbor’s basement, before curfew,” “tonight or maybe tomorrow night,” but it quickly becomes clear that the landscape between here and next door is less suburban greensward than no man’s land. We hear of protest marchers, of women trampled in public places by hurried crowds, of old men murdered in the shrubbery of city parks, of a curfew, of a looming, undefined menace that makes being out after dark tantamount to suicide. We hear nothing conclusive, but we hear in the voices of McNally’s characters the conviction of absolute terror.

McNally’s aim, it turns out, is to confront us with a less dramatic but no less stark reality: that fear—sometimes pointless, reflexive fear—is an all-too-crucial component of our politics, our religion, our relationships, and that we risk our humanity every time we let it govern ourselves. It was a caution some audiences apparently didn’t want to hear in 1965, when Things was hissed off the Broadway stage and one critic wrote that the theater would be a better place “if Terrence McNally had been smothered in the cradle.”

The virulence that greeted the play must have been inspired at least as much by the way McNally delivers his message as by the message itself. In that basement, rendered by ACT’s Carrie Ballenger in the monochrome grays and blacks of ’60s television, a brittle, half-mad matriarch (Maureen Kerrigan) and her all-too-bright son and daughter (Gabriel Zucker and Jennifer DeMayo) have constructed a defensive ritual against the unnamed It—a terror all the more potent for being so disturbingly shapeless—that defines the boundaries of their lives. Each day before curfew, the children invite a stranger to huddle with the family through the long darkness; each night, as It rampages beyond the bolted doors and charged fences, an impotent father and grandfather (Alan Edick) watch, horrified, while mother and children play mind games with the guest: looking for emotional vulnerabilities and, having found them, exploiting them in a brand of bitter, merciless teasing that rapidly becomes torment and then torture. Thus, night after night, do they assert their indomitability—and lose their souls.

Until, perhaps, the night the audience happens upon them. On this night, the Friend, as Ruby and her twisted offspring call each victim, is an idealist named Clarence (David Muse), and his destruction leads the family to an awakening that may spell salvation—or, just as easily, their final doom. The maddening uncertainty of the play’s conclusion, together with the fact that the catalog of Clarence’s humiliations originally included his onstage rape (mercifully absent from the pared-down edition ACT performs), must surely have accounted for much of the vitriol directed at the play in its 1965 run at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theatre and then on Broadway.

If inconclusiveness and frank sexuality (there remains a same-sex seduction) are less unsettling today, the play remains bracingly confrontational; ACT’s production, with a punishing sound design by Ricki Kushner that suggests a world being torn asunder just beyond the theater walls, can be downright brutal. Alas, Things remains also a sprawling mess—a curiosity, certainly, for the way McNally incorporates techniques and fascinations more fully explored in later plays, but an unwieldy work nonetheless, uncertain in its mix of threat and humor and too reliant on gimmicky writing. (Worst is a halting, repetitive dialogue style that sometimes makes the prospect of It seem positively comforting.) And most of the performances at ACT—though Muse and Zucker can be eerily magnetic—don’t have the heft and assurance to balance the script’s weight.

Still, it’s an artifact remarkable for its sheer ambition, a play worth experiencing if only for the fascination of watching a fledgling McNally wrestle with his unruly talents, and a production worth seeing—even at the expense of your dental work.

How ironic that Alfred Uhry’s The Last Night of Ballyhoo, 32 years the junior of Things, doesn’t seem anywhere near as contemporary in its concerns or its style. Studio Theatre’s sleek, expensively mounted production, directed in undistinguished fashion by Serge Seiden and set gorgeously in one of James Kronzer’s lavish sets, reveals the 1996 comic drama to be a smoothly fashioned but unremarkable bit of work, a play devoutly averse to risk taking of any kind.

Like McNally, Uhry wants to address an endemic social problem; in this case it’s prejudice, here manifested among a prosperous Jewish family in 1939 Atlanta. As the city buzzes over the premiere of Gone With the Wind, the inhabitants of Adolph Freitag’s comfortable home either dither or don’t over the approach of another landmark event: Ballyhoo, a week of social whirl capped by a formal ball that attracts well-heeled German Jews from the best families across the South.

That Adolph’s dreadfully awkward niece Lala (Makela Spielman) hasn’t been asked yet is the subject of concern for her stiff-spined, painfully status-conscious mother, Boo (Irene Ziegler); that Adolph presents a possible solution in the person of a handsome young New Yorker whose family roots lie “East of the Elbe” is cause for active consternation.

The trouble with Ballyhoo is not that it has nothing to say; it’s that it says it with so little force. Uhry outlines but never illuminates the snobbery that divides German Jews from “the other kind”—those of Russian and Polish extraction—and he shows, but barely begins to explore, the complacency that lets otherwise decent people perpetuate bigotry.

Still, though he takes a stab at a subplot about tension between Boo and Adolph (Arthur Laupus), the play is, finally, an astonishingly slight piece. Uhry evokes the prewar South with remarkable facility—the family’s linguistic tics, obsessive relationship charting, and references to Rich’s are spot-on—but all the comfortable hallmarks of Georgia can’t make up for the fact that not much of import happens in this narrow slice of it.

Nor can Studio’s production, with all the sumptuousness of Kronzer’s design and Contessa Riggs’ properties, make Ballyhoo seem weightier than it is. Warmed by dark woods, accessorized by the markers of prosperity—velvet sofas, fur-trimmed coats, and piles of fruit in wintertime—the Freitag place is nonetheless an enclave populated by stick figures. Seiden directs in the broadest of gestures, and his actors have merely traced in bold strokes the outlines of the types Uhry has written instead of characters.

Yes, there are ingratiating performances here (Carolyn Pasquantonio

is a warm if too-saintly presence as Lala’s cousin Sunny, Laupus an endearing patriarch as Adolph, and Kate

Davis a charming ditz as Sunny’s mother, Reba), and there are even brave

ones (it takes nerve to be as off-puttingly neurotic as Spielman’s Lala or as

bitterly nasty as Ziegler’s Boo). But there’s not a single one that even begins to be moving. CP