At the beginning of Lucas Hnath’s new play, “The Thin Place,” the main character, Hilda, explains the title. She says it’s like visiting an aquarium and seeing an octopus press itself up against the glass, except the octopus and the glass aren’t there. In an essay in the play’s program, Hnath describes “the thin place” as a spot on a street where “trees were said to walk there at night.”
I don’t know what either Hnath or his character Hilda are talking about. But I did come away with a couple of ideas regarding what the thin place can be, both of which made me glad I’d seen the play, which opened Thursday at Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons.
Les Waters directs “The Thin Place” with the house lights up throughout most of the 90-minute production. Mark Barton’s lighting puts about as much light on us in the audience as he does the actors on stage. It’s a harsh, alienating effect, but right from the get-go, it establishes what a thin place it is, that space between the actors and us.
The other and far more wondrous thin place is the aura around the face of Emily Cass McDonnell, the actor who plays Hilda and achieves the miracle of conveying the temperature of her thoughts without saying a word. The drama of “The Thin Place” occurs around the edges of what is spoken. It’s a thin place, indeed.
Hilda attends a séance led by a medium named Linda (the enigmatic Randy Danson), an older woman who turns out not to be everything Hilda had hoped after their first few ghost fests. When the two women have established a friendship of sorts, Linda invites Hilda to a party with two other close friends, Jerry (the effectively crass Triney Sandoval) and Sylvia (the slightly less crass Kelly McAndrew).
The intimate wine-laced get-together takes Hilda’s opinion of Linda to another place. Jerry and Sylvia’s lively banter with Linda — very different from Hilda’s far more introspective one-on-ones with her close friend — quickly turns the newcomer to this group into the outsider. There’s a long stretch where Hilda says nothing, and McDonnell rivets us with her silent sense of betrayal. Anyone who has been the loner at a party will relate.
When Hilda finally does rejoin the conversation, Hnath gives the character a humdinger of a monologue about her dead mother. McDonnell reduces her voice to a thin (it’s the best word) sliver of a sound that irritates but eventually lulls with a quivering sing-song effect.
Hnath’s four characters all want something from each other. And Hilda especially doesn’t get what she wants from Linda, whose response to her maternal tale reflects how literally the world has been pulled out from under her. Together they travel to a place where the trees stand still, and where something happens that is both creepy and far more ordinary.
The opening moments of “The Thin Place,” with the lights up and McDonnell’s Hilda on stage to deliver a long monologue about her less-than-exciting life, is a study in how to make a theatergoer start checking his or her watch in under 10 minutes. That alienation technique is purely intentional. Once Linda arrives to sit alongside Hilda, Hnath’s language creates real suspense, and is soon saturated with unexpected turns of phrase that compel us to pay attention. It helps, too, that Linda is a medium and her séance is worth attending.