Skeletons in the closet have migrated to the cellar bomb shelter in Jordan Harrison’s “Finn in the Underworld.” An arresting theatrical ghost story built from such curiously matched elements as Cold War satire, child sexual abuse and horror-movie fillips — only the latter sounding an occasional false note in Les Waters’ Berkeley Rep premiere production — this provocative and vivid piece should travel at least as far as author’s widely staged 2004 “Kid-Simple.”
Middle-aged sibs Rhoda (Randy Danson) and Gwen (Lorri Holt) are back in their parents’ house to empty it out, since elderly, widowed mom has just moved to an assisted-care facility and neither sister wants the place for herself. Unhappily still-single Rhoda has her professional life in Missouri, while high-strung housewife Gwen keeps family and home in the Northwest.
But even if they weren’t tied elsewhere, one gets the feeling they’d gladly rid themselves of this childhood residence ASAP. As Gwen reluctantly explains to the recently expelled college-student son who’s come along to “help” — though Finn (Clifton Guterman) is none too helpful — a neighborhood kid died in their basement some decades before.
While no charges were filed, the method of death (auto-asphyxiation during masturbation) suggested learned kinky behavior that cast dark local suspicions on the sisters’ father, who’d taken the neglected boy under his wing. That lad’s elder brother Carver (Reed Birney) was Rhoda’s teen boyfriend at the time, a relationship soon curtailed by his belief that her dad had gotten away with murder.
In the present tense, afternoon hours advance as Rhoda, Gwen and Finn negotiate the variably prickly dynamics between them. In particular, Gwen tries to gently re-establish some maternal authority over exasperating Finn, who seems determined to push away the very acceptance he seeks by continually “shocking” his elders on erotic and other matters. “You talk like I’m 7 years old,” he complains to unimpressed Aunt Rhoda. “Yes,” she deadpans.
Meanwhile, Harrison keeps flashing-forward to scenes later that evening. Apparently attracted by lights in the hitherto empty house, Carver — still a neighbor — has shown up, met sexually precocious Finn and arranged a secret assignation in the cellar built for “post-atomic security” in the Red Scared 1950s. As their stolen interlude proceeds, it appears Carver has an agenda not strictly carnal: Re-enacting his brother’s long-ago demise with the haplessly compliant Finn.
So far, so creepy. But what seems headed toward a predictable revenge scenario suddenly jumps the rails around the 50-minute mark. At that point, above-stage time projections suddenly “freeze” at fateful 9:37 p.m., and the distant past comes alive — in a rush of blackly comic, macabre “flashbacks” that often contradict or simply confuse the logic of what we’ve seen in present-day reality.
By the end, “truth” has grown utterly ambiguous, sucked into a supernatural vortex suggesting the house itself may create its own “memories” — and consume victims on its own power. Accordingly, David Korins’ house-interior set “breathes,” walls expanding and contracting, during half-lit pauses between scenes.
This is potentially ludicrous stuff (“The Amityville Grope,” anyone?) to put onstage.Indeed, there are moments when Waters’ direction, Matt Frey’s lighting and in particular Darron L. West’s sound design work too hard to make us jump in our seats. This teasingly complex script does a fine job stroking viewer queasiness. Obvious stabs at amping the fear factor via blackout “jump cuts” and musical thunderclaps risk inducing giggles instead.
A little toning-down of such effects would perfect an otherwise razor-sharp production. The excellent actors really prove their mettle in later sequences when naturalistic characterizations give way to ones at once retro-sitcom cartoonish and sinister.