When playwright Danny Robins wrote “2:22 A Ghost Story,” he thought he chose the titular number at random. “I wanted something that had a ring to it,” he reveals. But when actor Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy of “Harry Potter” fame) joined the London cast, he dug deeper.
“He asked why I chose it and told me 22 is a really important number for him,” Robins recalls. “And I realized that I do focus on that number. Like, I always choose like seat 22 on an airplane. I told him that maybe that’s because it’s my birthday – Sept. 22.”
Robins says at this point Felton gave him a strange look and told the author to look up his Wikipedia entry. Sure enough, Felton was also born on Sept. 22. “We both sort of went: ‘Whoa,’” Robins recalls. “And since then, we kept noticing twos everywhere. Like I’d be in a seat at rehearsals, and it happened to be 22. So, it’s become a symbolic thing now.”
If this anecdote sends a shiver down your spine or at least makes you smile at the coincidence, you’ll have a grand time at his show, which places a good old-fashioned ghost story at the center of a relationship drama. After premiering in Aug. 2021 at the Gielgud Theatre in London’s West End, the show transferred to the Criterion Theatre nearby, where it will continue its run into Jan. 2023. But lucky Angelenos don’t have to hop an international flight to catch the show, which was nominated for best new play at this year’s Lawrence Olivier Awards, as a special engagement is currently on through Dec. 4 at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. Matthew Dunster has directed all three iterations of the show.
While productions in other cities (ahem, Broadway!) are not off the table, Robins is thrilled to see his work on the Hollywood stage. “It’s not the usual journey to go from London to L.A., but it felt kind of appropriate with L.A. being the home of horror movies,” he notes. And with no shortage of star power – the Ahmanson cast comprises of “Crazy Rich Asians” lead Constance Wu, Emmy-nominee Finn Wittrock, “Pitch Perfect” actor Anna Camp and “Ozark” star Adam Rothenberg.
While it’s best to see “2:22” knowing as little as possible, it’s safe to reveal that the story centers on Jenny and Sam (Wu and Wittrock), a married couple who have moved into a new home with their baby. Sam’s good friend Lauren (Camp) brings her boyfriend Ben (Rotenberg) over for a dinner party. Over the course of the evening, it’s revealed that Jenny believes their home is haunted. Because Sam is a skeptic, Jenny asks their dinner guests to stay until 2:22 a.m. – the moment she has been hearing a supernatural disturbance. What unfolds is a tense but thoughtful – and often humorous – evening as the friends reveal their own beliefs and encounters.
Robins says he has always had a lifelong obsession with ghosts. “Probably from growing up in an atheist household and craving some form of belief,” he reasons. And though it might not sound like it, the play is incredibly personal, based on a story told to him by a close friend about five years ago. “She said she had seen a ghost and I remembered being surprised; she’s not the kind of person I imagined would say that,” he recalls. “I thought about how people in our friendship group would react to her and how it would range the spectrum from solidarity and belief to outright animosity and annoyance. And I thought if you put that in the context of a relationship, it could be quite powerful. The idea of: how can you love me if you don’t believe me?”
Previously best known for his work on BBC’s “Comedy Playhouse” and creating the horror comedy series “Young Dracula” for the Children’s BBC, people largely associated Robins with comedy writing for years. “I just kind of hit a point where I was feeling disillusioned by being facetious and frivolous all the time. And I guess I wanted something more, I was hungry for something that actually sort of said something about something.”
It turns out Robins had a lot to say and his love for the supernatural was a perfect conduit for him. In 2017 he created the podcast “Haunted,” followed by several others including “The Battlesea Poltergeist” with Toby Jones and his latest, “The Witch Farm,” with Joseph Fiennes. The podcasts all became wildly popular at the same time he was working on “2:22.” Or as Robins puts it, “It all came to fruition at the same time in a frenzy of ghostliness.”
While it’s challenging to put a thriller on stage, it’s safe to say there are plenty of unsettling moments for even the biggest doubter – don’t be surprised if the audience responds vocally – especially in L.A. “At one point during a big reveal, a guy sitting on the top tier of the auditorium loudly yelled out: ‘Holy shit!’ And I thought, ‘Yes! This is great!” Robins recalls with a laugh. “I thought I’d experienced an audience loving my play until I came to America. The British audiences were very warm and responsive but they sort of take it in and wait until you’re finished. But I love the fact that Americans applaud the moment the actors come on stage.”
Robins made some other minor changes to the text for the American production. In the original script, the play is set in a London neighborhood where foxes commonly roam. In America, the story has been transplanted to Boston and its now coyotes who can be heard throughout the night.
“I went on a road tour of the United States and visited Boston, Cleveland and New York,” Robins notes. “Boston gave me everything I needed.”
He also says he had friends and colleagues constantly reading new drafts. “I would ask, ‘Does that sound too British?’ Or ‘Is that how an American would say it?’ I did so much research because I wanted it to have the same depth of authenticity in the States.”
Robins admits he’s a bit caught off-guard by the success of the show, especially because horror is a genre that rarely garners respect. “When we were about to open in London, I could audibly hear the critics sharpening their knives,” he says. “It was a new play, we had a pop star – Lily Allen – in the lead who had never acted before. And here we were doing a horror play. Everything about it felt like it was designed to annoy people. But when you do it and it works, it works so well.”
For Robins, the scares come from keeping things grounded and having the characters drive the story – that’s why he cites films like “The Babadook” or the long-running play “The Woman in Black” as resonating with him.
“The thing that scares me is realness,” he notes. “Offering real and recognizable characters and real, recognizable scenarios makes it feel much more accessible, but also more scary. The reason you’re scared is you care about these people and what happens to them.”
Currently, Robins is tinkering with a film adaptation of “2:22” and in the midst of Season 2 of “The Witch Farm.” He’s also adapting “The Battlesea Poltergeist” for Blumhouse and working on a book based on his series “Uncanny” that should be due out next fall.
“I’ve sort of found this niche now. One newspaper described me as the ‘go-to ghost guy,’” Robins says with a laugh. “That’s fine. The ghosts have been good to me.”
“2:22 A Ghost Story” continues at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles through Dec. 4, visit www.centertheatregroup.org for tickets and information. For tickets and information on the London production, now at the Criterion Theatre through Jan. 8, 2022, visit www.222aghoststory.com.