Adolescence is a scary time, and it’s depicted in all its feral horror in Let the Right One In, a creepy and gripping new drama playing through Feb. 13 at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. Of course, Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist’s story (which he first presented as a 2004 novel, then adapted into a noirish 2008 film) concerns a fledgling romance between a much bullied young boy and a pubescent vampire girl. But this isn’t some Twilight wannabe, or even the stuff of a glossy CW series. Despite the extreme nature of his heroes, director John Tiffany and his superlative production team are after something far subtler and more human-scale. (That said, you are unlikely to see as much stage blood spilled in any theater this year.)
Newcomer Cristian Ortega plays the boy, Oskar, with a canny mix of guileless victimhood and budding defiance. It is only through his night-time playground encounters with his redheaded new neighbor Eli that he even begins to ponder asserting himself with his abusive schoolmates, who dub him Piggy, or his smothering single mom (Susan Vidler).
As Eli, Rebecca Benson pivots between a mesmerizing vitality and beyond-her-years world-weariness. (In the inevitable Hollywood remake, 2010’s Let Me In, she was called Abby and played by a 13-year-old Chloe Grace Moretz.) Benson can seem affectless in one moment, and then vulnerable and girlishly playful the next. It helps that in Jack Thorne’s stage script, her unusual condition and even more remarkable backstory are revealed only gradually, along with the tragic predicament of her long-haired guardian (Cliff Burnett), who goes to increasingly extreme lengths to protect his bloodthirsty ward.
Christine Jones’ stunning scenic design — dominated by a snow-dusted forest of birch trees, with a free-form jungle gym off to one side — sets the chilly tone for the show. She gets an assist from lighting designer Chahine Yavroyan, who bathes the stage in blue and strips of yellowish light to reinforce the often bleak and wintry atmosphere. And associate director Steven Hoggett once again adds a layer of choreography that is at once muscular and balletic. (He is a longtime collaborator of Tiffany’s and veteran of the 9-year-old National Theatre of Scotland, whose trans-Atlantic hits have included Black Watch and Alan Cumming’s virtually one-man version of Macbeth.)
Together, Tiffany & Co. create a series of chilling onstage tableaux, from the stringing-up of one victim to a sleepwalking pas de deux between mother and son to playground roughhousing that treads a tantalizing border between the fraternal and the flirtatious. The visual scene-making culminates in a pulse-racing climax back at school that leaves Oskar quite literally breathless. (Audiences too may wonder when they can safely exhale.)
In many respects, Oskar’s story is like a gender-flipped version of Carrie. There is the humiliating gym class, the gym teacher whose willingness to help is ultimately hampered by forces beyond their control, the peer who can seem like an ally but is ultimately not to be trusted, and the confusion over nascent sexuality. But there is no prom bloodbath in Let the Right One In, of course, and none of Stephen King’s critique of over-the-top Christian fundamentalism. Lindqvist seems to be less interested in sensationalism than in normalizing the extreme, making his murderous heroine sympathetic without giving her supernatural powers or dumping a bucket of blood on her. As a result, Oskar’s choice to love Eli seems like the most natural and logical one he could possibly make. Now, that should give you goosebumps. Grade: A–