Gather ’round the campfire, children, as a couple of seemingly scary tales are told in Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s “The Mystery Plays,” which is receiving its world preem at Yale Rep before it moves on to Off Broadway’s Second Stage.
Five apprehensive-looking people wander onto the near-bare stage, as if waiting on a platform for a train destined for “The Twilight Zone.” Rod Serling doesn’t appear, but Mister Mystery does, accompanied by shadowy lighting, billowy curtains and uh-oh musical underscoring.
Mister M. is a man dressed in black who addresses the audience with ominous ambiguity: “We are all of us on a journey,” he says portentously. “We are forever rushing up against an invisible world of secrets, an intangible world of mysteries.”
Like TV’s anthology thriller series, “The Mystery Plays” is as strong — or weak — as the individual tales it presents. Aguirre-Sacasa attempts to give the evening a metaphysical weight and ground it in theatrical tradition (with references to the medieval Mystery plays), but the evening remains rooted in the pulp fiction genre, however sophisticatedly rendered.
Following the melodramatic setup (the playwright also writes for Marvel Comics’ “The Fantastic Four”), the first of two stories, “The Filmmaker’s Mystery,” is presented. It’s a dandy narrative, full of offbeat characters, I-see-dead-people creepiness and a twist or two. However, “Ghost Children,” the second, tangentially connected story, never turns into anything worthy of Sci Fi or even the Lifeline channel, much less the stage.
In “The Filmmaker’s Mystery,” Gavin Creel plays Joe Manning, a gay indie filmmaker specializing in adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft tales, who is on a train ride home for the holidays. He flirts with a handsome seatmate, but just as a sexual connection seems to be in the works, he is inexplicably drawn onto a platform during a station stop and fails to reboard. The train then has a horrific conflagration where everyone onboard is killed. Joe is haunted by the unknown meaning of these supernatural encounters.
“Ghost Children” takes a character from the first story — Joe’s lawyer and ex-lover Amanda — and follows her journey to her Oregon hometown, where she is sought to speak on behalf of her long-imprisoned brother who murdered their father, mother and younger sister. Sketchy story is straightforward and predictable, with a leading character fraught with a single note of angst.
Most of the actors display their wide range of talents to their best advantage. Old pro Mark Margolis has a solid presence that anchors the show in all his roles (and almost makes sardonic sense of Mister Mystery.) Creel has the most fun with his flip and then flipped-out filmmaker.
Connie Grappo directs a minimalist production with engaging clarity and pace.