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Roberto Aguirre-Sarcasa's "The Mystery Plays"

McGinn/Cazale Theatre, 2162 Broadway at 76th St., June 21-July 10
Tues.-Sat, 8:00 pm; Wed. and Sat., 2:00 pm, $25.
Presented by 2econd Stage Theatre
(212) 246-4422
Reviewed by Robert Hicks on June 26, 2004

Playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sarcasa's "The Mystery Plays" functions on several levels. Part realistic comedy, part murder mystery, part detective thriller, part surreal melodrama, it is ultimately a modern-day mystery play about redemption, individual responsibility and man's relationship to God.

Mister Mystery (Mark Margolis) serves as the audience's spiritual guide as we journey through these two troublesome, interconnected one-act plays. The first, "The Filmmaker's Mystery," tells the story of Joe Manning (Gavin Creel), a filmmaker inspired by horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. He meets a handsome neurologist Nathan West (Scott Ferrara) who lies about his true occupation while both men travel on a train bound from Providence to Newport News.

Comedy quickly turns to tragedy, however, when the train, minus passenger Manning, derails and burns, killing 57 passengers. Another unidentified, dead passenger resembles Manning who now confronts his guilt as the sole survivor and faces suspicion from Detective Kinderman who is investigating the cause of the tragedy.

The story becomes supernatural when West's ghost re-enters Manning's world, seeking absolution for his sins as a serial killer. There's a striking parallel drawn between this unfolding drama and a Fox film project called "The Sineaters," which Manning's agent Amanda Urbane (Leslie Lyles) has uncovered in her research. Director Burke Dennings, hired to oversee the fictional thriller about a priest and a detective who teamed up to stop a supernatural serial killer, died mysteriously along with 57 other passengers in a plane flying from Italy to the U.S.

West inquires about Manning's knowledge of the "sin-eaters." Curious to know more about them, Manning asks his agent to do some research. Her research reveals that sineaters absolved people's sins so the redeemed could go to heaven. The sineaters could refuse to take on the sins of the dead "if they were too heavy and would burden his journey."

Manning realizes West (actually a salesman) committed 57 serial killings, but he refuses to take on West's sins. West rationalizes his serial killing by saying, "…I was looking for their souls…They weren't there. We don't have - . There's no room for God inside us." By contrast, Manning believes that man must bear responsibility for his actions and the weight of his sins and that the mysteries of the human imagination and life reveal there is a God.

Like the first play, the second play, "Ghost Children," deals with mysterious killings and spirituality. Its central character is Abby Gilley (Heather Mazur), a lawyer who used to date Joe Manning. Like her former boyfriend, she is returning around Christmas to her childhood home where her older brother Ben committed a gruesome, sinful crime in 1985.

Unlike West, Ben Gilley (Peter Stadlen) has found forgiveness from God, yet he still seeks his sister's understanding. While Abby flies home to Medford, Oregon, she remembers her past. As a child, she read romance novels, spy thrillers, fantasy novels and escape novels, dreaming of her own escape from Oregon.

Oregon's historical past, it turns out, has parallel significance to "The Filmmaker's Mystery." As a boy, Ben had learned in school that the Oregon Territory was founded on Aug. 13, 1848 nearly nine months after the Cayuse Indians massacred 57 people, among them missionary Dr. Whitman.

"Ghost Children" is a more lyrical play than its companion play. It substitutes unfulfilled dreams for supernatural tragedy. Ben dreamed of becoming a rock star and wore his hair long until his mother cut his locks off. The night of Ben's crime his younger sister Becky presented her historical school play about the founding of Oregon. Now Ben's defense attorney is filing a new deposition for Ben's retrial for the crimes he committed sixteen years ago. Sheriff Davis interviews Ben who reveals the fearful motives for his crimes.

Gradually, the second play uncovers family secrets about the Gilleys. There was physical (perhaps even sexual) abuse and both children lived with a fear of impending danger. Ben, like West in the first play, seeks absolution for his sins, but Abby, like Manning in the first play, can't forgive, so Ben is unable to start a new life.

Abby has her own past to erase - the memory of her familial abuse and her sense of guilt. Like West in the first play, she is living a lie. She feels guilt and must uncover the mysteries in her life. Her new vision, that humanity, even in its most evil moments, holds hope for goodness, underscores the playwright's ideas about human responsibility, the burden of retribution and the relative ease of life's mystery and uncertainty. Both plays offer a kind of Kierkegaardian "leap of faith," a belief (without understanding) in something bigger than mankind. Through spiritual belief, Mister Mystery tells us, one travels through life, attempting to escape from grim reality, searching for meaning and hoping to discover the path to spirituality and God. [Hicks]

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