A certain amount of ambiguity seems appropriate for a play like “Dark Matters,” which advances the notion that aliens from outer space have landed in rural Virginia to recruit sullen teenagers to populate their planet. Or not. But ambiguity aside, somebody has to know what’s really going on, and neither scribe Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa nor helmer Trip Cullman is willing to commit to a coherent narrative line. Actors flounder, trying to cover all their interpretive options. Aud scratches its collective head in confusion. Play sinks.
Alien abduction isn’t a bad metaphor for the sense of alienation that can creep into a family when mom and dad are depressed and their 16-year-old son is doing crystal meth. And it can certainly be argued that Michael Cleary (Reed Birney), wife Bridget (Elizabeth Marvel), and son Jeremy (Justin Chatwin) are excellent candidates for an alien takeover.
Michael is a one-book author, reduced to delivering milk in the rural mountain town in Virginia where the family has recently relocated from Washington. His ambivalent feelings about the move are plainly visible in the contrasting details of Wilson Chin’s set design for a living room with an ample desk, comfortable window seats and well-stocked bookcases — as well as stacks of unopened boxes containing personal effects.
Bridget writes, too. At least, she has been doing research into reported incidents of extraterrestrial activity and goes on nocturnal walks in the mountains, where she can get a good look at those winking stars and pretty planets. But that’s Bridget all over: Even her father warned Michael against marrying her (“Her eyes are off”).
When Bridget goes missing and an inquisitive sheriff (Michael Cullen) comes to the house to investigate, it becomes obvious that while this husband and wife may be on speaking terms, they have not been communicating for quite some time. Michael is shocked — shocked! — to learn that Bridget might even be going to bars and picking up truckers.
When she finally returns home, naked and distraught, Bridget has quite a different story to tell. This convoluted tale has to do with space aliens, and it would be a lot more convincing if Aguirre-Sacasa (“Based on a Totally True Story”) would make up his mind how he wants his audience to take it — as a literal sci-fi whopper or an ornate metaphor for a marriage in which neither one can recognize their partner any longer.
Forced to straddle a no-man’s-land of insecurity about the true nature of their characters, Birney and Marvel yell at one another and wave their arms around but convince us of nothing but their own performance discomfort. And while Cullen cultivates a range of expressions to register skepticism, his character has limited access to areas of inquiry outside the ordinary police procedural range.
Chatwin manages to make something more of young Jeremy by tossing off the sci-fi mumbo jumbo and concentrating on the teenager’s normal feelings of alienation, living in such a dysfunctional household. As he says to Bridget, “I’m disaffected, Mom, not dumb.”
Aguirre-Sacasa obviously wants to have it both ways — a spooky play about alien abduction and a domestic drama about alienated people. But his teasing game of playing with possibilities and withholding a final answer makes it impossible to care about his characters — or what planet they eventually end up on.