Late on a thunderous monsoon night in a well-appointed basement in Sedona, Arizona, the ghosts are restless. Or something – banging and scratching within the walls of a congressman’s gated house, where Imaculada, the housekeeper, has been holding the fort alone.
When her friends Rosemary and Lupita show up unannounced, fleeing domestic danger, it’s not long before the noises drive them away.
“You’re supposed to disclose the psychic status of your home to guests upon arrival,” Rosemary says dryly.
But this is exactly what she needs: a place full of ghosts that can be used to take revenge on her live-in boyfriend, a police officer who has beaten her bloody again. On the internet she found ‘a bit of witchcraft’ that she wanted to try.
“It’s called a dead-end,” she says. “Using energy, drawing spirits into highly active spaces to do your bidding in exchange for eternal redemption from their own purgatory.”
‘Man Cave’, the new play by John J. Caswell Jr. at the Connelly Theatre, a political drama is wrapped in the haunting delights of the horror genre, and it works on both levels. The characters are Mexican-American women on the fringe, and their concerns are theirs: work, love, heritage, survival; how they can feel safe and at home in their own country.
The piece, which unfolds in the Congressman’s man cave (designed by Adam Rigg), with its cowboy movie posters and mounted elk head, is also a consideration of what the United States is built on, what’s buried beneath — and what lingering, ghostly voices it is determined not to hear. (Lucrecia Briceno’s lighting is vital for cooling our spines.)
Directed by Taylor Reynolds for the theater company Page 73, the show cultivates an eerie mood even before it begins, thanks to Michael Costagliola’s extremely clever sound design, which booms ominously as the audience settles down, but ends in unnerving silence in the opening scene. We are ready to be startled by the slightest noise, and we are. And because the audience expects, even hopes, to be scared, his attention is tense and sustained throughout the game.
That’s useful on a show that takes its time, like “Man Cave” does – sometimes to the point of bagginess – having the friends bicker and snipe over the course of a fraught weekend. Why, Rosemary (Jacqueline Guillén) wants to know, is Imaculada “cleaning the house for an openly racist politician”? Is Imaculada (Annie Henk) right that something is trying to kill her? And where is her missing son in his twenties?
Why is Lupita (Claudia Acosta), Rosemary’s sober friend – her tender romantic retreat from the abusive cop – suddenly drinking again? Just how nasty is it that Rosemary brought a bag of the cop’s nail clippings for the spell she wants to cast? What drew her to the spirit world, when that was her mother’s thing?
Her mother, Consuelo (Socorro Santiago), an undocumented immigrant, raised Rosemary to assimilate. But when Consuelo arrives at the congressman’s house, she doesn’t need anyone to tell her his psychic status. She has a supernatural sensitivity to the dead.
“I hear them screaming in my head,” she says.
A program note explains that for the past five years Caswell wrote “Man Cave” — a time of tremendous social and political turmoil in the United States. If the piece feels bloated at times, it may have absorbed so much anger and fear from the air. But its form also feels like an act of resistance to the limitations of theatrical conventions.
On one wall of the man cave, near the moose head, hangs a rack of vintage rifles, emblems of American cowboy culture. This isn’t Chekhov, though, and those guns never go off. They just remain in plain sight, silently menacing.
Through April 2 at the Connelly Theatre, Manhattan; page73.org. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes.