The Woman in Black

Full review

The New York Times, Alvin Klein – Manipulated in a Most Deliciously Spooky Way. If a ghost play trades in the unexpected, then ”The Woman in Black” comes as a surprise twice over. For Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel, which has been running in London more than eight years, is less a matter of plot and denouement, of thrills and chills, than an exercise in style and set-up. Not that the spooky element isn’t graspable if a director goes for it. In the Centenary Stage Company’s production, the goose-bump time promised by the ads in England — ”spine tingling, blood curdling, flesh creeping” — are delivered as if in afterthought, and secondhand at that. In the director Arlen Bensen’s view, ”The Woman in Black” is an evening of storytelling, mood manipulation and theatrical artifice. As such, it succeeds. The setup: 25 years after strange happenings at the funeral of one dreaded client, an 87-year-old woman, her solicitor, still overcome by the creeps, hires an actor to help him tell a most peculiar tale to his friends and family so that he can perceive it rationally and rid himself of lingering aftershocks. Since the story is set in a graveyard on the Yorkshire coast, in the dead of winter, much is heard of eerie marshes, sudden fogs, sea mists, moaning winds and nocturnal wails, with all the attendant sound effects, evocatively designed by Scott O’Brien. But the actual set is a bare stage; the props include a light bulb, movable boxes, a chair, a trunk and a hamper, all intended to work over an audience’s imagination — an invigoratingly primal exercise in contemporary techno-maniacal theater. At the start, the actor (played with marvelous dash by T. Ryder Smith) gives the solicitor, Arthur Kipps (J. C. Hoyt, all dry English reserve), pointers on vivid, passionate projection and movement. But the solicitor insists he is is no performer. From his five-hour manuscript (that’s the scariest prospect of all, but fear not, you won’t hear it all), the actor fashions a two-act play in which he enacts Kipps, as a most animated, agile narrator, and the solicitor takes on six other roles. Mr. Hoyt proves that Kipps is indeed a fast learner. And ”The Woman in Black” emerges as a metaphor for the healing power of art as well as a terrific display piece for two actors. By Act II, a horrific story, ghastly and ghostly, unfolds. Given that the original novel is often found in the young readers’ section of bookstores or libraries, story comprehension should be no problem for theatergoers from age 8 on up. It involves a woman in black, an apparition or not, though emphatically she is not the 87-year-old corpse.  Caution: Don’t read the Centenary program before curtain; it gives away the number of characters in the play, and that’s bad form.