By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out”)
Following his success with both Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at Le Petit Theatre last season, Salvatore Mannino is back, helming a new production, Let the Right One In appropriately arriving just before Halloween.
Based on the novel and adapted screenplay penned by John Ajvide Lindqvist, Let the Right One In is written by Jack Thorne and tells the story of a coming of age young couple with a macabre twist.
For those unfamiliar with the original novel or film, the play is essentially a love story between a bullied adolescent and what appears to be a similarly-aged vampire taking on the form of an attractive young girl.
Dalton Major plays the role of Oskar, a tortured boy, who we observe being bullied by his fellow classmates. They trivialize him in many ways, calling him “Piggy” and beating him, imposing their will upon him and leaving him secluded and lonely. When Eli (Caylee Sanders) and a man who appears to be her father, Hakam (Mike Harkins), move into the next door apartment, Oskar is intrigued and curious.
Acting out against his teenaged tormentors, Oskar uses a pocketknife to inflict imaginary wounds to his bullies. Eli takes note of his hidden capacity for violence and reaches out to him as any inquisitive girl might do when meeting a boy. The two approach each other and Oskar uses Morse Code, which he teaches Eli, so the two can tap out messages through their common apartment walls. This is especially true during daylight hours when Hakam and Eli’s apartment is closed off from sunlight.
Both Major and Sanders are superb at playing teenagers tentatively connecting to one another. There are genuine feelings of what would normally be considered teenage love, albeit with a bizarre twist. Eli cannot tolerate regular food and must be also be invited into a room or she reacts violently and hemorrhages profusely. This act of letting Eli into Oskar’s room is at the very heart of the title, but also serves as a metaphor for letting the vampire into his life.
One questions if Eli isn’t using the relationship with Oskar to further her own needs, especially when Hakam is no longer able to provide her with a steady supply of blood for feeding.
As their relationship with Hakam is explored, we learn that he has been her henchman for a rather long time and we have to suspect that he was recruited as a young man of a similar age to Oskar.
Perhaps due to ineptitude or perhaps just losing his edge, Hakam has no choice but to allow himself to be captured by the police, who are hot on the murderer’s track. As they are closing in on him, he chooses an unexpected method to prevent them from recognizing him or otherwise identifying him.
Battered by his bullies and feeling isolated from his alcoholic mother (Wendy Miklovic) and separated, alcoholic father (Nick Straus), Oskar truly has no one else to turn to other than Eli. When he runs away to his dad’s home, his father advises Oskar to lash back at this tormentors. His dad is quite happy to play a board game with him, until a friend drops by. His dad is insistent; he cannot stay. Deeply hurt by the rejection, Oskar fails to pick up on that the two adults are more than just co-dependent alcoholic buddies.
The two bullies Jonny (Andrew Hagan) and Micke (Derek Boudreaux) are unrelenting, although Micke does seem to go along with Jonny’s malevolent intent. Oskar does take his father’s advice and uses his pocketknife to slice off Jonny’s ear in a later scene. Jonny’s sadistic brother Jimmy then decides to teach Oskar a lesson. We learn Jimmy is even more sociopathic than his younger brother. He hatches a plot to lure Oskar back to his school, where they can exact revenge.
The slow-moving nature of the play features a number of rapidly-changing scenes and is accompanied by an ever-present sound design by Nick Shackleford that serves to heighten the action on the stage. Sometimes, the scenes are jarring and disturbing. But, after all, this is a play dealing with vampire lore and there’s bound to be some occasional bloodletting.
Kevin Wheatley is also memorable as Police Commissioner Halmberg, who fails to realize the truly sinister force that has descended on his town.
Rachel Levy does a lovely job in lighting designs that are, as one might expect for a vampire tale, very dark. Kaci Thomassie executes the costume designs, while Laurin Hart handles the wigs and makeup. James Lanius provides the projections and video, which are an integral part of the action, especially in providing a perspective from the local news media during the manhunt for the killer.
Newly appointed artistic director A. J. Allegra, late of The NOLA Project, the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA) and The Willow School (formerly Lusher High School) joins with producing executive director Don-Scott Cooper to oversee this first production of an ambitious 2023-24 season.
Let the Right One In finishes its run at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré, 616 St. Peter Street, in New Orleans this Friday, Saturday and Sunday, October 20–22. Tickets are available here or by calling 504-522-2081.