In good times and bad — but especially bad — there’s always a place among cultural self-medicators for the comforting scare. I refer to those ritualized entertainments that air and arrange our nastiest fears, while scrupulously honoring quaint and orderly narrative traditions, soothing even as they frighten.
The appetite for this genre would seem to be vast at the moment. How else to explain the unexpected success of a genial, middling film like “Knives Out,” which revived the slumbering cinematic tradition of the country house murder mystery?
So perhaps it’s finally the moment for Manhattan audiences to embrace the sepulchral title character of “The Woman in Black,” which opened on Thursday in the Club Car bar at the McKittrick Hotel. Stephen Mallatratt’s ingeniously skeletal adaptation of Susan Hill’s 1983 Gothic novel has been haunting London for more than three decades. (That makes it the second longest-running production in the West End, bested only by the 67-year-old “The Mousetrap,” a — but of course — country house murder mystery play by Agatha Christie.)
Yet when a touring version set up cobwebby shop Off Broadway at the Minetta Lane Theater in 2001, it managed fewer than 50 performances. I didn’t see that incarnation — nor the 2012 film, which starred a Daniel Radcliffe newly liberated from the “Harry Potter” franchise.
I hadn’t even read Hill’s original novel before visiting the McKittrick (home to the deathless interactive spookhouse play “Sleep No More”). But I felt that in the raw maw of this bleak winter, I was definitely in the mood for whatever gently macabre release a cozy thriller might provide.
My instincts were correct. This agreeably sinister production is directed by Robin Herford, the main man for “The Woman in Black” ever since he oversaw its low-budget, pre-London prototype as a “Christmas ghost story” at the bar space in the Stephen Joseph Theater in North Yorkshire, England.
Herford has tried to recreate the feeling of that initial experience here. The Club Car (previously home to fare that includes Dave Malloy’s ectoplasmic song cycle “Ghost Quartet”) has been outfitted with what looks like a makeshift stage and rows of movable chairs, as if for a town-hall meeting. (Michael Holt is the designer.)
It is here we gather, with fortifying drinks in hand if we choose, to watch two exceptionally proficient actors (well, technically three, but that’s telling) relate Hill’s tale of a young lawyer who learns to believe in ghosts in a grand, isolated and uninhabited country house. And I can attest that even those familiar with Hill’s novel are likely to be surprised.
That’s because Mallatratt (who died in 2004) expanded the story’s purview, with witty resourcefulness, to embrace the meta-theatrical. Hill’s novel is a fairly straightforward (and straight-faced) reimagining of the classic Gothic potboiler, told in wintry retrospect by a now middle-aged narrator.
This is the character we meet first in the stage version, a diffident bourgeois gentleman named Arthur Kipps (David Acton), who arrives with a bulky manuscript containing his description of ghastly adventures of years earlier. He hopes that this account, which he intends to read to his family, will help him lay to rest a story that continues to torment him.
So he begins to read — very badly and unconfidently. Enter a younger man (Ben Porter), a professional actor whom Kipps has hired as an adviser and who tells the old boy he’s doing it all wrong. His solution: The Actor should take over Kipps’s role while Kipps portrays everybody (or almost everybody) else in the story. This allows Kipps to embody the joys of a theater virgin being initiated into the seductive craft of acting. (Amazing how a pair of prop eyeglasses can instantly improve a tyro’s mimetic skills.) Porter’s character demonstrates the less happy lesson of the dangers of an actor committing unconditionally to his part.
As for the story being told here, you’ve heard it before, even if you haven’t. The formula: Skeptical, modern-minded innocent visits isolated manse, meets ghost; a baleful destiny ensues.
This journey into fear — set in a Britain still shaking off the picturesque dust of the Victorian era — is achieved with little more than some sheets, a flashlight, a trunk, a few sticks of furniture, ambient sound effects (by Sebastian Frost) and lighting (by Anshuman Bhatia) that regularly plunges the audience into darkness.
This means that, with our nerves conditioned to be exposed, we become acutely aware of every sound and movement around us. And, yes, people jump and shriek when the title character suddenly shows up in their midst.
But they (read: me, too) often react in a similarly startled way when their fellow audience members shift abruptly in their seats or sneeze or gulp or clink the ice cubes in their drinks. Which reminds us that this is indeed a work of theater, a communal experience in which we’re all involved.
Thus we scare one another; we scare ourselves; we have agency in this process of scaring. And we can all laugh about having frightened ourselves when it’s over. Ideally, that means we feel at least a bit more replenished than when we arrived, newly ready to face the really scary world that awaits outside.
The Woman In BlackTickets At the McKittrick Hotel, Manhattan; mckittrickhotel.com. Running time: 2 hours.
Credits Adapted by Stephen Mallatratt; directed by Robin Herford; design by Michael Holt; lighting by Anshuman Bhatia; sound by Sebastian Frost; original sound by Rod Mead; production stage manager, Carolyn Boyd; general manager, Tim Smith and Martin Platt. Presented by the McKittrick Hotel.
Cast David Acton (Arthur Kipps) and Ben Porter (The Actor).
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