Eli, the adolescent vampire of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN at St. Ann’s Warehouse, is scary strong, and Rebecca Benson, the adult who plays her, is scary good. There is a scene in the second act that is, within the universe of the play, an agon between life and death, living human and undead adversary. She is not only strong but inexplicable; it is impossible to get the better of her partly because she cannot be figured out; her tactics lack the logic of the pugilist or martial artist; she explodes in the face of her foe and goes every which way; eventually, of course, to his throat.
Benson has more than such one moment, when she galvanizes the nerves of the drama, although none so sustained as that one. They are, as theatrical moments, the midwives of cliché, to wit, worth, in themselves, the price of admission. So go, and lap them up, and disagree with me on the rest of it. Because the National Theatre of Scotland‘s version of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, in an adaptation by John Thorne, doesn’t meet, as a whole, the atmospheric imperatives of the genre to which it belongs and that contributed to making its Swedish cinematic progenitor one of the two or three best vampire movies ever made. Something is wrong early on, when, crossing a stage whose bare winter trees and thin layer of stage snow appear specifically designed to create atmosphere, the actors are as unaffected by the presumed cold as is the audience, who in the frigid New York winter are kept agreeably toasty by the indoor heating. This is made all the worse when the vampire appears and her lack of sensitivity to the cold is repeatedly commented on in the dialogue. It is, to be sure, a difficult problem to solve, but John Tiffany‘s production makes no visible effort to deal with it, and it is not, unfortunately, minor, but metaphorically crucial to the whole. The most important thing about the cold is not that it is literal, in an environmental sense, but that it represents the frozen soul of a culture in contrast to which Eli seems positively tropical.
Perhaps the difficulty arises from a concept that, although ingenious, turns out to have been the wrong one. The generally fine designer Christine Jones‘s picturesque snowscape is taken by Tiffany as a theatrically neutral empty space, a wintry equivalent to a black or white box theater. It is periodically staked out as a store, a bedroom, a school locker room, a sauna, a train compartment; the cast are players in the snow, children in a wonderland, and they are free, as a result, to ignore the naturalistic implications of the winter setting and their teeth chattering lines. Counting on a suspension of disbelief is one thing, throwing down gauntlets to it another. Perhaps a literal white box, multi-sected by nondescript poles, would have been better. A summer time slot wouldn’t have hurt either, when air conditioning and a desire to cool off might have been conducive to a genuine chill.
As it is, the ambiance is incoherent and the acting, while accomplished, is, with the exception of Benson, insensitive to the larger picture. She, as the one figure who stands immune to the elements, is ironically the one who evokes them. It is worth going to see the dark ballet of her limbs, as they flay the air like shrapnel, and outré opera of her voice, when it spreads like a crack in the ice.
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN continues through March 8 at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. For tickets and information, click here.