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Saturday, September 30, 2023

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PerformanceStage ReviewThe harsh winter of 'Let the Right One In'

The harsh winter of ‘Let the Right One In’

How does the second-most well-known Swedish tale in the US fare on a local stage?

There are some stories that should stay small. It’s easy to see the impetus to expand their scale, thinking that what was successful in the micro will be even more so in the macro. Every now and then it can work, but there’s something to be said for stories that intentionally limit their scale and keep focus on a specific narrative.

John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2004 horror novel Let the Right One In (West Coast premiere through June 25 at Berkeley Rep) is the very sort of story that should stay small. Lindqvist himself saw to that when he personally adapted the novel for the acclaimed 2008 film—making what likely became the second-most well-known Swedish property in the US, after The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series. Lindqvist’s story purposefully limits itself to a handful of characters and a relatively short amount of time to tell his compact drama in the most impactful way. But the new English-language stage version keeps trying to “embiggen” itself in the most irritating ways possible.

Jon Demegillo, Diego Lucano, Michael Johnston, and Jack DiFalco in ‘Let the Right One In’

In addition to the 2008 film, Lindqvist himself adapted the novel for the stage in 2011, a year after it was given an inevitable US film remake. It was then remade again in the US as the recently-cancelled Showtime series. In between all of those versions came this 2013 English-language stage adaptation by British playwright Jack Thorne. Admittedly, I’m mostly familiar with the Swedish film, though I haven’t seen it in years—but Thorne’s ham-fisted attempts at wide appeal aren’t helped by curious directorial choices by Berkeley Rep’s John Tiffany.

The familiar story beats are there: teenage Oskar (Diego Lucano) is raised by a single mother (Nicole Shalhoub), who is little help to him as he’s mercilessly bullied by Jonny (Michael Johnston) and his friends. This has turned Oskar into a loner, which is why even he’s surprised when he seems to catch the attention of Eli (Noah Lamanna), a disheveled new kid who seems to appear out of nowhere, and seems to be as socially awkward as Oskar.

All Oskar knows of Eli is that he says he lives with his “father” Hakan (Richard Topol), an equally enigmatic man whose appearance just might coincide with a series of murders that have been plaguing the town lately. With a detective (Julius Thomas III) closing in, it isn’t long before Oskar finds out exactly how his new friend is connected to the killings, and why Eli can’t eat candy like other kids.

Noah Lamanna and Diego Lucano in ‘Let the Right One In’

In spite of Jack Thorne’s long career, it’s difficult to talk about this adaptation without mentioning his work on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. That overlong piece of Wizarding World fan service (which I actually enjoyed in the pre-pandemic days, before Rowling made TERF-dom her full-time calling) set a particular tone for how Thorne adapts work, doing one’s best to appeal to mainstream audiences rather than focusing on anything unique. This didn’t matter for Harry Potter because it was already mainstream and that show, at least, had the benefit of bringing unbelievable wonders to stunning life onstage.

With Let the Right One In, Thorne makes the mistake of trying to make each and every character so needlessly sympathetic that it clashes with the terror of Lindqvist’s story. It’s the same misfire one expects from upward-failing writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, whose stage adaptation of American Psycho demanded his audiences love Patrick Bateman (the superficial misogynist who murders sex workers and colleagues), and who spent so much time on the bullies in Carrie that the eponymous telekinetic was just a supporting role in her own story.

Thorne does the latter, trying his best to blanket Jonny and his new sidekick Micke (Jon Demegillo) with unearned sympathy that seems an attempt to justify their tormenting of Oskar. Like in Carrie, that sort of ham-fisted “development” is completely at odds with both the bullies’ actions and how they eventually end up at the story’s climax.

None of this is helped by (admittedly well-done) blood F/X and sound design (latter by Gareth Fry) that go for big instead of atmospheric; and detonate at the most inopportune times for the sake of jump-scares. What’s more, most of the performances strike the wrong notes. Richard Topol’s may be the most grating (director John Tiffany seems to have only given the direction of “be loud”), but all of the actors seem uncomfortable in their roles, delivering lines as if they were all awkwardly trying to translate the dialogue into a language they didn’t speak.

Plus, none of the “teens” are believable as teens—all of their voices are too deep, all of their postures are too mature, and all of their demeanors suggest people who have seen much of the world rather than ones who are still trying to figure it out. That would be fine for old vampire Eli, but Lamanna seems to have attempted to give Eli an otherworldly quality by performing the sort of theatrical physical traits one would expect from a Doug Jones character in a Guillermo del Toro film. Only Shaloub seems to find any footing, trying her best as Oskar’s mother, despite clunky dialogue and sometimes-awkward staging.

(l-r) Jon Demegillo, Nicole Shalhoub, Erik Hellman, and Jack DiFalco

Also successful is the stage design by Christine Jones. Presented as a Scandinavian winter with eternal night, the set is a collection of bare trees with trimmed branches that the actors occasionally climb. Stage-right is home to a metal structure that primarily serves as a playground climbing structure. A thin blanket of snow covers every square inch of the stage.

Before the Berkeley Rep all-but-abandons COVID safety next season, they still require masking at their current shows, the enforcement of which is mixed. Their top-notch HVAC system continues to do great, with CO² levels on my Aranet4 hovering around 630ppm throughout the entire two-and-a-half hour show in a full house.

I left this production wondering if it wouldn’t have been better served in a black box theatre with a director more skilled at subtle horrors. I also wondered how Lindqvist’s own stage adaptation would look if translated into English. I asked myself those questions because the version of Let the Right One In I just saw was too rote, offering nothing new but fluff that shows a misunderstanding of the source material. I still recommend the original Swedish film, considered a landmark in mainstream transgender representation, but this version just overinflates itself.

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN West Coast premiere runs through June 25. Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Tickets and more info here.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theatre artist, and arts critic. You can find dodgy evidence of this at thethinkingmansidiot.wordpress.com

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