The Haunting of 85 East 4th Street
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
December 2, 2006
Dan Bianchi's The Haunting of 85 East 4th Street is a throwback to old-fashioned live radio drama with some modern influences added for good measure. In chronicling the notorious paranormal history of the very building—and, the very room—they're performing in, RadioTheatre invokes Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre, Ghost Hunters, and any number of History Channel TV specials. Using a heavy battery of sound effects and creepy music, and performed by a more-than-game cast, The Haunting of 85 East 4th Street is by turns hokey and unnerving, and never less than totally effective.
The address in question, located in the East Village, is now an indie theater stronghold, home to the Kraine Theatre, the KGB Bar, and the Red Room (the third floor space in which The Haunting of East 4th Street is housed). But, in various other incarnations, it has been home to a clairvoyant actress, the Ukrainian Labor Home, local squatters and prostitutes, and reportedly an old Indian burial ground. Anyone who's seen Poltergeist knows what that means: a long history of strange occurrences, unusual sightings, brutal murders, and other weirdness. Exorcists, ghost hunters, and paranormal experts have all been sent packing by the building, literally: one of them got "thrown" down the building's long staircase (cracks in the floor caused by his impact still remain, FYI). And, I suggest that regulars of the KGB Bar not stare too closely into the mirror on the second floor landing. It might stare back.
With such juicy material to play with, the entire company sinks their teeth in and presents the building's spooky highlights with relish. Dan Almekinder vividly brings to life the serio-comic final moments of a junior Lucky Luciano foot soldier right after an unusual marriage proposal. Karyn Plonsky skillfully chews the scenery as an exotic vaudeville star who contacts the dead on the side. Clyde Baldo and Frank Zilinyi both tear into their multiple roles, which include the floor-cracking ghost hunter and the building's original owner (who met his own tragic end there, as well) with gusto and conviction. Everyone intones the lines with a sinister, moustache-twirling hokiness that brings to mind Jack Palance's better moments from Ripley's Believe It or Not.
The Haunting of 85 East 4th Street's biggest asset is authenticity. Performing the play in the very room where most of the building's blood-curdling events happened adds a disturbing sense of unease to the production. Audience members can be forgiven for believing the actors whenever they claim to "see something," whether it's the walking, headless corpse of a rapist or a height-challenged Australian tribesman who acts like a chimp. As directed by Dan Bianchi, those moments carry chilling credibility. I mean, the building's supposed to be haunted, so it could happen, right?
The play suffers a little bit from too much of a good thing, though. Bianchi's script feels a tad long, even at 75 minutes, and could stand to trim an anecdote or two. And, a couple of unbridled tangents about Avian Flu and George W. Bush are unnecessary. Otherwise, The Haunting of 85 East 4th Street is a polished production that takes its pulp fiction roots seriously, and proves that Halloween doesn't just happen once a year.