An Evil Metaphor

Hosted by

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Expectation is an essential element of theater and indispensible for horror. To really scare someone you have to play with what they expect, either by shocking them with the unexpected or toying with what they know is coming but not the when or the how.

It’s expectation that makes the new theater version of The Exorcist at the Geffen Playhouse such a challenge.

Let’s get it out of the way up front: there is no vomited pea soup; good triumphs of evil (sort of), and while a neck doesn’t actually spin, there is a deliciously crisp sound effect involving a neck.

Rather than taking a campy turn like last year’s send up of the cult classic The Re-Animator, playwright John Pielmeier has taken an earnest approach. The opening lines murmured by our de facto narrator Father Merrin, played by the austere Richard Chamberlin, announce the play’s frightfully topical aspirations “For anyone who doubts the existence of the devil as I once did, I have three words. Auschwitz. Cambodia. Somalia.”

To make sure we’ve gotten the point, Mr. Pielmeier has Father Merrin hit the nail on the head, “This is a struggle between good and evil — for heaven's sakes, even if you don't believe in the devil you can embrace a metaphor, can't you?”

Now as far as this metaphor goes, it’s engaging to examine how we name “evil.” The question posed is “What do we do with behavior we can’t explain away with either medicine or psychology?” So as we watch the actress/mother Chris MacNeil search out a medical cure for her daughter - we should be drawn into the plight of a mom struggling to help her little girl. But here’s where expectation, familiarity, and frankly the title undo The Exorcist. It’s hard to contemplate the broader names of evil when what you’ve come for is an exorcism performed under a gigantic cross.

It doesn’t help that the play’s 95 minutes is split between three alternating narratives modes. The first belongs to Father Merrin whose dialogue can’t help but try and explain everything. The second is a seemingly endless amount of exposition to set up the thin characters and story. The third, and most successful, are when we deal directly with Regan - the demonically possessed little girl - who’s played with a haunting doe-eyed innocence by actress Emily Yetter.

Where the production does succeed - and frankly scare you - is with the production design. Director John Doyle has collaborated brilliantly with a trio of designers: Scott Pask, sets and costumes; Dan Moses Schreier, sound; and Jane Cox, lighting. They’ve set the action around an altar that serves as bed, examination table and ultimately magic trick. Surrounding the playing area are spooky black church gates that feel simultaneously religious and cage-like. Looming above this is a gigantic cross with a magic secret of its own. What’s mesmerizing about the design is how the lights and sound begin to pulsate and almost breathe towards the climax of the play. It’s disorienting, unexpected and at times - scary.

If you’re a die hard fan of the film go with an open mind. If you want to see some elegant and eerie design - go. If what you’re looking for is a well told, engaging play - maybe skip this one.

The Exorcist plays at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood through August 12.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Richard Chamberlain, Emily Yetter and Brooke Shields in John Pielmeier's The Exorcist. Photo by Michael Lamont