Review: The Comforts of the Cozy Scare in ‘The Woman in Black’

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 Black

Tickets 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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