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A CurtainUp Review
Dark Matters

God, why is everyone over the age of twenty so, like transparent?— Jeremy.

Reed Birney & Justin Chatwin in Dark Matters
Reed Birney & Justin Chatwin in Dark Matters
(Photo: Sandra Coudert)
A dysfunctional family, an isolated house, and a mysterious woman who talks of otherworldly beings— that's the sales pitch designed to lure you to the Rattlestick Playhouse to see Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's new play, Dark Matters. This real yet surreal play delivers on all counts.

The Cleary family certainly qualifies as dysfunctional. Not only is the house in a small Viriginia mountain town where the story unfolds isolated, but its occupants, Michael, Bridget and Jeremy Cleary, still feel like outsiders six months after moving there from Washington, DC. Boxes of as yet unpacked stuff are scattered all over the living room. The mystery woman is, in fact, Mrs. Cleary (Elizabeth Marvel). Seems she's an amateur astronomer who's wandered off into the night quite often but who's now gone missing in broad daylight. This disappearance sets what I call an onion play in motion: layer by layer, the surface normalcy of this little family is peeled away to reveal the darkness in the marital relationship, and in the recesses of Bridget Cleary's mind. As more layers are unpeeled, the reality of the world we see and the possibility of a third dimension occupied by beckoning space alients collide.

Unlike his fictional family, playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is a young man who's functioning very well indeed — as a screenwriter and dramatist, and also as the guy who dreams up adventures for The Sensational Spider-man for Marvel Comics. While his experience as a comic book and screenwriter was the heart and soul of his Manhattan Theatre Club debut play, Based on a Totally True Story (see link below), comic books play a very minor part here. However, given his longstanding interest in sci-fi and anything big on thrills and chills, Dark Matters is very much a case of doing what comes naturally —a taut thriller in the Rod Serling Twilight Zone tradition.

Whether you buy into this attempt to make a double point about alienation by blending a drama of an alienated family with a tale of otherworldly space invaders or not, Dark Matters is smartly constructed and written, with many short scenes ending in cliff-hanger style blackouts. Director Trip Cullman sees to it that the layers of Aguirre-Sacasa's "onion" are stripped away with non-stop tension, though he focuses on the family reality drama more than edge-of-the-seat spooky stuff. What will really keep you glued to your seat here is the four-star cast. Every single one is thespian gold.

First on stage is Justin Chatwin as teen-aged Jeremy. The strikingly handsome young actor alternates active participation in the missing mom mystery with several brief audience addressing monologues. He manages to show youthful rebelliousness as well as , love for his parents and come off far wiser to their problems than they think. Chatwin's brief opening scene is just enough to fast forward us to our first meeting with his dad (Reed Birney, in the play's most emotionally complex and riveting role) and the town sheriff (Michael Cullen). Michael has called the Sheriff to help locate his wife (Elizabeth Marvel) who has only appeared via a cheery and very normal message on their answering machine on her way home from her job as a school librarian. As he fills the Sheriff in on the situation, it's one a.m. and Michael is understandably worried.

While it will be some time before the always marvelous Ms. Marvel makes an appearance, the dialogue between Michael, Sheriff Eagan and Jeremy prepares us to meet a woman who bears little resemblance to your average soccer mom. Birney, who has done sterling work in many plays I've seen, is at the top of his form here. His transition from mild-mannered bewilderment to maniacally intense, sweaty desperation is amazing to watch. Given the melodrama of a disappearing mom, the unravelling of the family's dark secrets, not to mention the second mystery involving Bridget and the hostile outer space aliens, Cullen's marvelously laid back Sheriff Egan (reminiscent of Frances McDormand's memorable small town sheriff in Fargo) provides just the touch of sanity.

I'm loathe to go into too much detail about either the problems that have brought the Clearys to Virginia or the alien situation that is either strange but true, or a way to account for Bridget's other departures from "normal" behavior. I can tell you though that your intermission speculations about what happened and will happen are likely to prove quite wrong by the time Jeremy delivers his closing monologue. And whether you find the ending satisfying or feel (as I did) let down by having this ambitious idea dwindle into ambiguity, you won't be bored.

Set designer Wilson Chin's inelegantly furnished living room with its filled to the brim book shelves but still unpacked boxes all over the place, establishes this as the home of educated people whose published writing still hasn't freed them of the need for regular day jobs (I can't recall ever coming across a writer whose extra money gig is as a milk delivery man). The exterior view of a few slim trees hints at the mountains that drew Bridget back to the area but the grandness of nature to which she is drawn is much further away and visible only to those who believe in the impossible.

This New York premiere runs through December 22nd but while it has the makings of a suspenseful film with lots of special effects (on which I hear Mr. Aguirre-Sacasa is already at work ), I'd recommend seeing it live, and with these actors, while you can.

To read our review of Based on a Totally True Story go here.


Playwright:Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Director: Trip Cullman
Cast: Reed Birney, Justin Chatwin, Michael Cullen and Elizabeth Marvel.
Sets: Wilson Chin
Costumes: Katherine Roth
Lights: Matt Richards
Original Music: Michael Friedman
Sound: Shane Rettig
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with an intermission
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater 224 Waverly Place (off Seventh Avenue South — between West 11th & Perry Streets) 212-868-4444
From November 10, 2006 to December 22, 2006; opening November 20, 2006.
Wednesday — Saturday at 8pm, and Sunday at 3pm.
Tickets: $40.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on November 19th performance
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