The Weird cheerfully digs a shallow grave

Who's scarier, the knife-wielding maniac or the trusted boyfriend who summons her? The Satanists next door, or the loving husband who might be secretly plotting with them? Dad's Garage Theatre's The Weird goes for both humor and horror by riffing on classic schlock comic books. But subtler themes of trust and the nature of relationships lurk just below the surface.

Melissa Foulger and Anne Towns direct the world premiere workshop production in the Top Shelf space, where the close quarters suit both The Weird's scares and its in-jokes. Playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's "Six Spine-Chilling Tales of Terror" offers a modestly entertaining fright-fest that doesn't quite unearth its most intriguing ideas.

The Weird most fully achieves its mix of chills and laughs with the introductory play "Bloody Mary." A teenager (Rene Dellefont) tries to spook his girlfriend (Bethany Irby) during an ominous drive by recounting the urban legend of the deadly title character, who appears if you repeat her name 49 times. The play disarms the audience with inside gags -- it even drops the name of Dad's former artistic director Sean Daniels -- then generates suspense with drawn-out silences and unnervingly long blackouts.

The Weird doesn't always go for the scare. In "Insect Love," an entomologist (Wade Tilton) in 1958 pines for his comely lab assistant (Kathleen Wattis) and chats with her in great detail about the then-newly released film The Fly. Aguirre-Sacasa intriguingly builds the play around their awkward flirtation, but never reaches a decisive conclusion. Wattis captures the earnest blandness of a typical "love interest" in a 1950s sci-fi movie, then, in "A Ten-Minute Play About Rosemary's Baby," she generates big laughs as a brassy New Yawk matron. The play condenses the Mia Farrow film about young newlyweds and the devil-worshippers next door to comic effect, but also relies on highly specific Edward Albee references that went whistling over my head.

"Swamp Gothic" mixes Tennessee Williams-style Southern melodrama and homoeroticism with the lore of Swamp Thing comics, in which a college student (Dellefont) confronts a crazed Southern belle (Sloane Warren) about her missing brother. The play picks up a creepy idea about necrophilia from "Insect Love," but the two performers never connect and merely act past each other.

Warren delightfully embodies a different kind of caricature of Southern femininity as a white-trash adulteress seeking to kill her 400-pound husband (Dellefont) in "Mourning Becomes Olestra." Dellefont's fat suit is nearly as comical as Warren's accent, which draws the word "whut" out to two high-pitched syllables.

"Olestra" hews closest to the old horror comics formula of revenge and gore, and audiences in the front row should take the protective plastic sheeting offered by the theater. But like the rest of The Weird's plays, it touches on trust issues. The Weird repeatedly shows people who question the worthiness of a friend or a lover, and suggests people who exploit the emotions of others are every bit as monstrous as zombies and vampires.

The evening's final play presents the most positive relationship and switches from monster comics to superheroes. An ordinary woman (Warren) lunches with her superheroic best pal (Irby), and they gossip about costumed crime fighters. The play flirts with notions about friendship and identity, but like most of The Weird, it feels too much like a superficial sketch.

The serious moments in The Weird signal that the writer has more on his mind than tickling and titillating his audience, even though most of his ideas need fleshing out. Playwrights like David Ives and Christopher Durang reveal cutting insights in lighthearted short plays. To make The Weird live up to its potential, Aguirre-Sacasa needs to dig just a little deeper into his characters' emotional lives. The Weird can have its heart and eat it, too.



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