With the thick fall of snow over New York in these recent days, the city is the perfect setting for a beautifully staged Swedish vampire tale. Let the Right One In recently extended its North American debut at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse through March 8. Produced by the National Theatre of Scotland, the play’s frigid woods of leafless birch trees are where the bloodthirsty but vulnerable vampire Eli (played by Rebecca Benson) and outsider Oskar (played by Cristian Ortega) have their bleak juvenile romance.
The play’s story, based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist–turned 2008 Swedish film–turned 2010 American remake, has been visually evocative from the start (perhaps most memorably in the first film edition where Oskar’s schoolmate tormenters finally get their comeuppance, which the audience only sees from under the water of a swimming pool). Oskar is bullied at school, and finds a dangerous friend and tentative romance with Eli that from the start we know can only end in bloodshed. Now as a play, it remains cinematic. The direction of John Tiffany in collaboration with Steve Hogget has the same dreaminess rooted in harsh reality that they demonstrated in productions like the 2013 The Glass Menagerie on Broadway.
The set design by Christine Jones is effectively simple. Leafless trees with their branches seemingly amputated into stubs stretch up from a layer of snow on the stage that has enough movement that you forget it’s fake, with melancholy music by Ólafur Arnalds building and falling like snowdrifts. Carefully timed lighting accents the evolving action, where even the horror of the bodies being strung up by their feet and drained of blood by Eli’s caretaker can’t keep people away from the magic of the forest. When the blood spills or gushes in one of the more startling visual effects, the contrast against all that white makes it all the more shocking.
Let the Right One In still suffers a bit from its moral ambiguity — are we rooting for Oskar’s bullies to be brutally murdered by Eli? Or the death of the others who must perish to keep her alive? Yet the acting of the two leads is really extraordinary in grasping the teenage isolation that brings them together, especially Benson, who manages to make her Eli into something of a wounded predator you want to reach out and help, but may very well lose a hand to.
Even as the set doesn’t change much throughout the play with its depressing playground equipment and revolving props altering the scenes, details like the accumulating blood stains on Eli’s shoes make the sense of terror fester. The unease of adolescence is common horror fodder, from young women as werewolves in Ginger Snaps to the blood-soaked Carrie, where the revenge fantasies of Let the Right One In have a kinship. Here it feels like the manifestation of so much shrouded pain, from Oskar’s alcoholic mother to his own loneliness, with Eli’s ferocious thirst for blood emerging from her waifish exterior like all that bundled up frustration unleashed. And amongst the cold woods, it’s something you can get lost in, where, to borrow a line from James Welch’s poem “Dreaming Winter,” the audience can “stand winter still and drown in a common dream.”
Let the Right One In continues at St. Ann’s Warehouse (29 Jay Street, Dumbo, Brooklyn) through March 8.