Hiding Behind Comets
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 14, 2005
"He was only dangerous when he got other people to follow blind, under his control.... And you followed him. Did nothing to stop him.... That ain't his fault. That's your fault. People like you. Because Evil knows exactly what it is. What are you, exactly?"
This is a dangerous play.
And that's almost all I am at liberty to tell you, without ruining the many grand surprises that playwright Brian Dykstra and director David Mogentale have cooked up for you in Hiding Behind Comets. Hands down one of the finest new plays of the season, this edgy suspense drama is both a superb ghost story and a joltingly subversive study of human politics. Go see it.
It takes place in a bar—a little out-of-the-way place in a little out-of-the-way town (the script says it's in California, but I think it could be anywhere in the U.S.A.) The location is brilliantly realized by set designer Mark Symczak, who has provided a cozy naturalistic set complete with working lighted signs and a full stock of beer and liquor, a good deal of which gets consumed during the play.
The bartender on duty this particular night is Troy, a good-looking but fairly ordinary-seeming young man of 22. His father owns the place; his twin sister, Honey, a scrappier, edgier version of himself, is hanging out with her friend Erin, who is Troy's current girlfriend. It's twenty minutes to one; all three are waiting to close the bar at 2:00am so that they can go to a party at Billy's house. They would leave right now, but they've got a customer, a middle-aged fellow whose name, we will soon learn, is Cole.
Events are set into motion—slowly, teasingly—when Cole asks if there's a cigarette machine. This occasions the first in a series of mini-diatribes that (a) define Cole as a maverick, or eccentric, or perhaps something worse; and (b) amuse, and then unsettle, the three young people. Cole has a way of getting under the skin: he's a vintage Dykstra creation, a mouthpiece against oppression like some latter-day Lenny Bruce. Plus, he's real creepy:
TROY: You can smoke outside.
COLE: Can I?
TROY (to HONEY): ...So, if you guys can just wait--
COLE: You mean they haven't passed some law yet where I can only smoke in my own home?
COLE: Or car, or private club, or tree house with its own air filtration system, or plane, or boat outside of territorial waters, or bomb shelter? Is that what you're telling me? ...I said: Is that what you're--
TROY: I don't know.
COLE: You don't know. Well, what do you think?
At Honey's suggestion, Troy and Erin go downstairs to the storeroom where they make love, and when they (presumably) climax, she does too, leaning against the bar, temporarily distracted from her conversation with Cole. Honey and Troy share things in that uncanny way twins sometimes do, she explains. And, well, okay—Honey is a little bit creepy too.
Honey and Cole the stranger talk alone for awhile, about, eventually, the bogeyman and whether Honey is adopted (she insists she is not). After Troy and Erin rejoin them, Cole tells them a very scary story about something that happened to him 22 years ago.
And so Dysktra builds his eerie tale, raising the weirdness bar with unexpected detours and revelations. Though there's something vexingly resonant in the stuff that's said, mostly it feels tantalizingly like a ghost story told around a campfire late one light. Someone's going to reach through some darkness and grab somebody—that is palpable. Someone is going to say, "If there's one person in this room who shouldn't walk out of here alive, it's you." There will be brawls, tests, drinking, guns, baseball bats. Dysktra and Mogentale will deliver the promised scare—Hiding Behind Comets works exactly like a great horror tale—and they'll also turn the world inside-out for a few minutes and make us look at perceived wisdom and wonder if any of it is actually wise. There will be moments when you'll be both afraid to look and unable to look away.
I love this play. I wish I could tell you more about it without giving important stuff away. But I can't.
I can say that Mogentale's direction is tight and effective and just the right amount showy; and that all four actors do outstanding work here, with Moira MacDonald in absolute command of her craft as the mercurial Honey, Amber Gallery fine as Erin, and Dan Moran and Robert Mollohan enormously compelling as Cole and Troy, respectively.
The rest you'll have to find out for yourself. Which is, on more than one level, exactly what Dykstra is daring you to do.