What does it take to make a convincing argument seems to be the main theme of playwright Danny Robins’ “2:22 – Ghost Story.” As the title suggests, the topic of the evening is ghosts. Jenny (Constance Wu) is a believer and her husband Sam (Finn Wittrock) is a sceptic. Sam’s old friend Lauren (Anna Camp) and her most recent love interest Ben (Adam Rothenberg) are their first dinner guests in their new home and the unfortunate witnesses to a desperate argument about the existence of ghosts. The play is making its US premiere at the Ahmanson in downtown Los Angeles.
Whether or not there are ghosts will be revealed in the end, but no spoilers here. Jenny and Sam have moved into an old house, one that once bore evidence of a long marriage. It was “a museum to this woman’s horrible taste.” All evidence of that detailed past has been stripped down for modern cupboards, skylights and high glass entry ways without curtains. This is a highly visible life, but on this dark and stormy night, the coyotes are serenading the debate about ghosts. There’s more trouble in this household than the unexplained noises in the dark of the early morning hours at 2:22. The liberal amount of booze swilled by the foursome helps unleash some long fermenting problems. Jenny and Sam’s relationship is souring like vinegar rather than aging like fine wine.
While this seems like the setup for a different take on the wild, drunken argument between an established couple before a more hesitant coupling and you might think: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Instead, the couplings are not professional husband and stay-at-home wives.
Sam is the know-it-all intellectual, “a walking Wikipedia.” He likes lecturing, often using the phrased, “I think you’ll find” to emphasize the confidence he has in what he says. Jenny was a sponge when she met Sam; Jenny liked listening. Now Sam attempts to explain away what Jenny has seen and experienced, Jenny is finally, somewhat stridently pushing back.
The witnesses to their exploding marital woes are not another married couple. Robins changes the paradigm of power. Lauren, who as “a mental health professional” thinks everyone is crazy, has been hooking up with the contractor who did her bathroom, Ben. Ben used to live in the neighborhood before it was gentrified and he knows something about ghosts and exorcisms. This ensemble goes for the ugly and hits hard emotional notes, accompanied by some strident screaming soundscape that won’t let you call asleep.
The casting of Wu as Jenny does a few things. It plays upon the concept of White guy desperately seeking a docile or compliant partner to be his best audience and finding exactly that in an East Asian American woman. The character’s ignorance about a well-known East Asian celestial romance between the cowherd and the weaver girl emphasizes how out-of-touch Jenny is with her culture. That suggests that she is a banana, yellow on the outside and White on the inside. Was her marriage to a White man motivated by a need to assimilate? The original 2021 cast did not have a person of East Asian descent as Jenny at the Noël Coward Theatre in London‘s West End. Instead, Lauren was played by a person of part East Asian descent. The role of Jenny isn’t inherently supposed to be for a person of East Asian descent.
Yet Robins’ parallel relationship design challenges the audience to question their own understanding of what is “acceptable.” As a man, it is more acceptable for Sam to marry a woman who is not his equal in intellectual terms? Yet Sam and Jenny see Lauren’s romantic alliance with blue collar Ben as unacceptable. Why is that any different from the relationship between Sam and his eager sponge Jenny, particularly as we first see Jenny painting the walls?
Once you get to the end, you’ll recognize that Danny Robins has served up a traditional ghost story but involved contemporary couple issues. Director Matthew Dunster insures there will be screams (and your ears may be in for a shock) and Lucy Carter’s lighting design and Ian Dicksinson’s sound design (for Autograph) provide an ambiguous atmosphere–no haunted mansion decor. Dunster has insured that you won’t fall asleep and you’ll keep your eyes on the clock as the two couples wait until 2:22 a.m. to reveal the truth about ghosts and ghost stories and the mysteries of life.
You might not believe in ghosts at the end, but you’ll probably think twice about things like buying old houses and wandering alone in the dark.
“2:22 – Ghost Story” continues at the Ahmanson until 4 December 2022. Tickets are $40-$160. Running time: 2 hours, including one 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, visit CenterTheatreGroup.org.