Do you Believe? Lucas Hnath’s THE THIN PLACE
The Thin Place, Lucas Hnath’s most recent offering (at Playwrights Horizons through January 5th) purports to be about those liminal spaces where the separation between worlds is thinner than usual. The Bermuda triangles, places where someone can just vanish into thin air. Starkly and precisely directed by Les Waters, the play’s structure constructs several such invisible boundaries — between its two main characters, Linda (a medium) and Hilda (an amateur spiritualist who worms her way into Linda’s favor), and between the world of the play and the (real?) world just beyond it, teeming along 42nd Street.
Why are we so readily susceptible to ghost stories? The play, much of which takes place under bright house lights, suddenly plunges us into darkness and you can hear audible gasps of pleasure around you in the audience. Here we go, they seem to be thinking. This is what I signed up for.
There is a ghost story contained here, but I’m not convinced it’s the main feature. I prefer to read the work as a meta-commentary on itself, presenting us with the conundrum of persuasion and belief at large. The work itself is an undisguised act of persuasion. It’s formally performative. The first “act” takes place right in front of us on an unadorned stage, no effects, nothing but an actor in a chair who can see us so as to even point one us out, declaring, “You look so much like my grandmother!” This is Hilda speaking (played by Emily Cass McDonnell), telling us about how she began practicing the act of telepathy. She eventually introduces Linda, the “real” medium that she’s recently met (the robust Randy Danson), who enters, sits, and speaks, but through Hilda’s quotation of her. Hilda is still telling this story, until suddenly, she’s not.
Linda, perhaps tired of Hilda’s naïveté, tells her that none of this is real. It’s a trick. She demonstrates it. Hilda takes back the narrative long enough to question whether or not Linda really knows what she’s doing while pretending to commune with the dead — what if it’s real and she doesn’t even realize — and then the play is interrupted by a dinner party. Two other characters burst in, laughing, with wine. Hilda’s grasp on the proceedings continues to slip. We become uncertain as to who our narrator is. The play itself becomes, temporarily, intentionally, thin. The conversation turns to politics, to the practical applications of being a medium (i.e., anticipating what people want to hear and then telling them exactly that). This middle act expands out and feeds on our own pre-constructed belief structures — do we agree with any of these people? Are we on anyone’s side? What happened to the ghost story? Will the lights ever go out?
Hilda, threatened by this development, doubles down, and somewhat aggressively turns the conversation and attention back onto herself. The thinness shatters into shards. We lean in, unable to control our own desire to be persuaded, even as we know that this is a play, this is not true, this is just another gesture in a world full of them (the play, earlier, humorously references America’s obsession with comparing everything and everyone to Hitler, and makes comment on his rigid gestural language, which he apparently developed because it was more convincing and persuasive). The danger of a gesture. The fragility of the line between belief and disbelief. If we buy this story — which has been laid out so plainly and baldly right in front of us — what else are we susceptible to?