There Are No More Big Secrets, the latest witchy soul-searcher from actress-playwright Heidi Schreck (now performing in The Language Archive), isn't the tightest, tidiest show on the block. It's one of those deep pools of the Great Inchoate, a writer's rummage disguised as a colloquial living-room play. But it's the kind of messy work I've come to adore: There's something playful, strange, and pungent here, beyond the over-yapping naturalistic palaver and barely necessary Dostoevsky references. I love hauntings, even well-telegraphed ones (especially well-telegraphed ones?), and with this tale of two couples arrayed in what first appears to be your classically unhappy Raymond Carver parallelogram (but then turns out to be something far weirder, far more pentagrammy), Schreck delivers a doozy.
Charles (Gibson Frazier, bringing unexpected dignity to the nebbish part) and Maxine (Christina Kirk) carry on their quiet lives and failing marriage in a farmhouse near the Delaware River; they're visited by an old friend, Gabe (Adam Rothenberg), who left the States in the early nineties for adventures in post-Soviet Russia. His Russian exile ended an affair he'd been conducting with Maxine under Charles's nose, and now he's married to a hard-bitten Moscow journalist, Nina (Dagmara Dominczyk). The two have fled Putin's Russia for a variety of shady reasons, some nobly political, others less so, as becomes (a little) clearer as the night deepens.
And deepen it does: Amid a bucolic chorus of frog sounds that becomes progressively more ominous, the four drink, vent, flirt, and stab at each other with varying degrees of savageness (and believability). Nina, the play's driving force and chief goad, takes the lead, pleading Russian bluntness. (She's our Cassandran truth spur, hailing from a safely foreign locale of Ultimate Authenticity, and versions of her show up in every living-room play, even the more earthbound ones.* She's here to teach these empty, deracinated, essentially childlike Americans a thing or two about the real nature of the cosmos.) Nina, we slowly realize, has a secret agenda that borders on the paranormal, and Dominczyk does a superb job ensorcelling us on a human plane as well as an astral one. In her hands, Nina's casual is-she-serious invocations of the supernatural feel like a very natural extension of her wintry-witty Russian raconteurism.
Needless to say, this character could've gone very, very wrong in the wrong hands, and that goes double for Kirk's Maxine, who's yet another iteration of the spiritually lost, post-feminist, post-ideological, post-everything American flibbertigibbet who keeps turning up in play after play.** Maxine is the closest thing the play has to a fulcrum, but Schreck smartly avoids balancing too much weight on the character's slender shoulders. Kirk, for her part, feels fully aware of her character's potential to irritate, and errs on the side of quirky laughs. She's at her best parrying and absorbing Dominczyk's blows, flinching at her bluffs. The men more or less get out of the way and watch; they're barely the point. I could've watched these actresses circle each other all night.
In her soberer, stop-and-go second act, Schreck can't quite conduct the lavish spirit-energies she's conjured in the first, but I can't say I minded that much. I was continually struck by director Kip Fagan's bravery, allowing his characters to abandon the stage to its ghosts, letting the silences deepen, and I was thoroughly spooked by the yawning shadows and too-coziness of John McDermott's set. (These enlightened yuppie farmhouses: They're always bad news, aren't they? Never leave the city, kids!) I could've lived with fewer Sixth Sense sound cues, especially after the haunting is safely under way. But then again, I'm a ghost-story guy, a sucker for ectoplasmic atmosphere. I like to be goosed, even when I'm fairly sure what's coming. What I hope is coming: more work from Schreck. She feels like she's on the cusp of something, something of grander dimensions and higher ambitions. She's shown a willingness to crack open the earth's crust and tap the undersoul. I can't wait to see what crawls out of her next.
*For current examples, cf. (but do not necessarily run out and see) In the Wake and After the Revolution.
There Are No More Big Secrets is playing at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater through December 18.