After three productions in London’s West End, Danny Robins’s haunting, mysterious, engagingly labyrinthian, and surprisingly uproarious play, 2:22 – A Ghost Story, has finally made its U.S. premiere at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, CA, where it can be experienced through December 4th. Robins, who is famous for creating the popular BBC podcast, The Battersea Poltergeist, has teamed with director Matthew Dunster to fashion a superbly imaginative story that challenges what audience members think they might know with twists, turns, and unconventionalities that have everyone in the theatre on the literal edges of their seats for the play’s two-hour duration.
2:22’s ability to keep audiences in a state of thrilling suspense and tension is a grand achievement; after all, it is on a stage that is physically much more removed from its audience than a film would be, which has the advantage of close-ups and camera trickery to induce unabated immersion. Yet, Robins’s writing and Dunster’s directing, alongside Anna Fleischle’s unnervingly commodious stage design, Lucy Carter’s evocative use of lighting, and Ian Dickinson’s hair-raising sound design, have brilliantly turned a red digital wall clock, inside a fixer-upper home, into an imposing inanimate object with significant psychological sway over its audience.
And therein lies the inspiration for the title and the crux of this soiree with supernatural proclivities. The production, and its devilishly supercharged narrative, relies on the interaction of four characters who make the most of their unique relationship dynamics with each other. The general premise involves Jenny and her husband Sam being dinner hosts for another couple: their close friend Lauren and her new beau Ben. What begins as an innocuous gathering of kindred spirits turns on a dime to become reflective of a new reality, or horror-filled fantasy, that envelops the scenery once Jenny starts to question whether her and her husband’s new abode is cursed given that she’s recently heard frightful footsteps in her baby daughter’s room at night (technically, early morning) at the same alarmingly alliterative time. This reveal prompts alcohol-assisted back-and-forths pitting the two who believe in the unearthly (Jenny and Ben) versus the two who are mostly incredulous (Sam and Lauren), but one thing is for certain: the group acknowledges a possibly approaching dread that will be ostensibly clarified when the clock strikes 2:22. Be rest assured that the ramifications are quite different than when a clock shows 11:11 or chimes at midnight.
The quartet of accomplished actors, who are making their Ahmanson debut, share a captivating repartee, uttering their lines with a mastery that strikes just the right mood, be it unsureness, overconfidence, trepidation, sarcasm, silliness, and so on, depending on the scene. Additionally, a considerable number of rejoinders — as part of Robins’s rhythmic dialogue — are so clever they earn heaps of laughter which counterbalances the intensity of the proceedings while also acting as ingenious misdirection. Best of all, the writing and blocking are conducive to a fluid pacing, especially with words and actions that ring true and are trimmed of frills.
Crazy Rich Asians’ Constance Wu fills the shoes of Jenny, a role that was originated by pop star Lily Allen in 2021. Wu has cobbled and actualized a perfect blend of characteristics, ensuring that her Jenny is more than just anxious, helpless, sympathetic, and increasingly frazzled about her worst fears coming to light; she is also unwaveringly courageous as an assertive and protective mother. Jenny’s husband, Sam, is portrayed by Finn Wittrock who is terrific at playing the exceedingly intellectual and smugly contrarian spouse — a role that he similarly carries out to critically acclaimed results, opposite Mila Kunis, in Netflix’s chart-topping Luckiest Girl Alive. In contrast to Jenny’s protestations that her intuition is legitimate, the skeptical Sam, who has an explanation for every anomaly, is invalidating as the obstinate astronomer whose scientific elitism bubbles to the surface; in his own words, the laws of thermodynamics dispute the appearance and disappearance of apparitions. As disarming as Sam can be, whose quips earn chuckles, he butts heads with the other three characters and a mercurial Alexa. Throughout his exchanges with his castmates, Wittrock is skilled at being the main push to the pull of the paranormal.
Depicting the new item, who are guests of Jenny and Sam, are True Blood’s Anna Camp as Lauren and Adam Rothenberg, best known for BBC One’s Ripper Street, as Ben. Like Sam, but not to such an austere degree, Lauren, a psychiatrist by trade — refined on the outside and free-spirited on the inside — cannot abide the cognitive dissonance of having reason and otherworldly happenings co-exist; nonetheless, inviting doubt into Lauren’s headspace is the uncovering of a childhood memory. Camp adeptly gives the impression that her persona, as much as she might try to let loose by getting inebriated, has her work cut out for her in trying to balance the antithetical ideologies. On the other hand, Ben, a contractor, is on the opposite spectrum as a true adherent of the spectral — having had his fair share of ghost vigil experiences — which vindicates Jenny. Rothenberg is fabulous at conveying Ben’s dryly direct and eager energy, which often contributes to much-needed moments of levity.
Connecting the scenes, and undoubtedly functioning as memorable transitions, are blood-curdling screams as the stage succumbs to fiercely chilling red lights outlining the proscenium. This, among other storytelling devices, hypnotically guides observers into a fugue-esque state of breathlessness as they brace themselves, scrutinizing the stage and feverishly taking inventory of the sprinkling of clues to be processed, only to be startled again.
In effect, Danny Robins’s 2:22 – A Ghost Story is a masterclass at ramping up audience engagement. The prospect of ghosts and the uncanny grows only more palpable, as audience members’ imaginations are pushed, prodded, and finessed with the thrall of expectation being waved and unwaved in front of their faces — not unlike a cunningly performed magic trick that tears asunder preconceptions and understandings about what really is and isn’t. This exceptionally acted production, which also has its fair share of humor, is well-rounded and deserves acclamation from all corners of the globe, not just London and now Los Angeles.
For more information about 2:22 — A Ghost Story at the Ahmanson Theatre, and to purchase tickets, please visit: centertheatregroup.org