Fallout boy: Finn in the Underworld 

Actor's Express stages an erotic thriller

"Erotic thrillers" on stage prove so sharply different from their cinematic counterparts that they probably shouldn't even use the same terms. Violent, steamy movies of the Michael Douglas model usually amount to cautionary tales against having sex with the wrong person, and often affirm the nuclear-family status quo. Theater also uses the cocktail of sex and suspense to attract and titillate audiences, but with less comforting implications about human nature.

Actor's Express usually programs at least one erotic thriller in its seasons – last year had two, dark play or stories for boys and Octopus – and the daring playhouse begins its 21st season with the provocative Finn in the Underworld. Playwright Jordan Harrison clearly has the courage of his convictions as he pushes Finn into extremely dark thematic territory, but it's the kind of play you can respect much more than you can enjoy.

Initially the play cuts back and forth in time between two groups of characters. During the day, sisters Rhoda and Gwen (Marianne Fraulo and Mira Hirsch) passive-aggressively bicker with each other while packing up their parents' house. That night, Gwen's 20-year-old son Finn (Louis Gregory) recklessly flirts with middle-aged Carver (Doyle Reynolds), a creepy neighbor who's clearly not to be trusted. All too soon, they're playing dangerous games and addressing each other as "boy" and "sir." We gradually learn that Finn isn't just a bored thrill seeker, but hopes that Carver can spill some of the family secrets Rhoda and Gwen keep under wraps, like, "What happened in the house's fallout shelter?"

Director Freddie Ashley and lighting/sound designer Joseph Monaghan III create an atmosphere of dread. Characters mention ghosts, but you're never sure if the play's surreal twists reflect hallucinatory dream states or actual supernatural events along the lines of The Shining or Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House.

The actors' solid work helps make sense of the play's baffling twists, and Reynolds has some particularly effective moments when he launches into a Cold War-era sales pitch for "post-atomic security." When a pervy sex act coincides with an upbeat speech about the future, the play's condemnation of early 1960s social hypocrisy feels heavy-handed and forced. To its credit, Finn in the Underworld doesn't flinch from its grim theme that the past has a long reach, but its relentless unpleasantness leaves a bad taste in your mouth.


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