The legitimacy of these glibly designated “horror plays” depends entirely on how you define “horror.” If the term is taken to mean that deep, disquieting dread of falling under the power of some malevolent force of evil, then three of the four plays in this anthology called “Dread Awakening” can immediately be ruled out, because the only emotion they provoke is mild revulsion. That leaves Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s “Bloody Mary,” a mordantly funny variation on a vintage urban legend best told in the dark by dating couples in cars.
Aguirre-Sacasa, the 33-year-old comicbook writer (Marvel’s “The Fantastic Four” and “Spider-Man”) and burgeoning playwright, seems to be on everyone’s radar these days. Later this week, his autobiographical play “Based on a Totally True Story” opens on Manhattan Theater Club’s Stage II. October will see the opening of his sci-fi drama “Dark Matters” at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. And he has a commission from Second Stage to write thriller “Masaya,” about a group of Americans who have gone missing in Nicaragua.
Meanwhile, “Bloody Mary” is already out there as a bizarro example of his technically proficient playwriting style.
It doesn’t hurt to bring a working knowledge of teen horror pics to this creepy story about a high school jock and his cheerleader g.f., driving along a dark road late at night to Shadow Lake, on the 10th anniversary of the mass slaughter of a group of camp counselors. But even the uninitiated can appreciate the storytelling skills of 17-year-old Ben (Jedadiah Schultz) as he creeps out Laurie (Christianna Nelson) by going over all the gory details of the killings and ritualistically intoning the name of the crazed killer who is supposed to materialize on cue.
Savvy scribe works in a mock-scary narrative idiom that’s spot-on for the genre and for youthful auds who grew up on its hokey thrills. (“Twelve oversexed, overeducated, under-employed slackers died that terrible, terrible weekend …”)
Schultz and Nelson may look young enough to pass for high school seniors; but they prove adept at catching the dual tone of excitement and fear in the voices of characters who are having fun working themselves up into a pleasurable state of terror — and passing it on to the audience.
Helmer Pat Diamond knows how to fine-tune the pace so the emotional level escalates seamlessly from fun to fear. But the success of this clever stunt ultimately tracks back to Aguirre-Sacasa, a playwright with a terrific ear, an authentic storytelling voice and an intimate knowledge of genre classics like “Candyman” and “Prom Night.”
Although the technical level of the other three shows on the bill doesn’t measure up to “Bloody Mary,” it isn’t the skimpy sets, murky lighting or overwrought acting that does them in. It’s their misconception as dramatic narratives.
Eric Sanders’ “Sleep Mask” attempts to replicate a young woman’s childhood nightmare without setting up a logical framework. Clay McLeod Chapman’s “Pearls” is a talky sketch about a sexual obsession that feels like an interior monologue reworked from a short story. And while Justin Swain’s “Treesfall” has plenty of action, the dynamic of its romantic triangle is all too obvious.
To be sure, the material is unpleasant. But there is nothing of the supernatural in the bizarre events of these plays, and the emotions they raise are far removed from the sublime state of existential horror.