In 'Whisper House,' the living are the pawns of the dead

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In 'Whisper House,' the living are the pawns of the dead
Wyatt Cirbus, left, and Samantha Mathis in the musical “Whisper House,” in New York, Jan. 9, 2022. A lighthouse keeper, the nephew living with her and a Japanese employee are on alert for U-boats and graver threats in this chamber musical set in 1942. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Alexis Soloski

NEW YORK, NY.- The ghosts, at least, are having fun.

Sunken-eyed, in moldering Jazz Age whites, they slink and shimmy around 59E59 Theater’s petite stage — about the size of a backyard swimming pool — luring characters to their various dooms. There are only four living characters and a limited supply of calamity, but still these spirits put in overtime. In Duncan Sheik and Kyle Jarrow’s pocket Gothic, “Whisper House,” the ghosts (Alex Boniello and Molly Hager) deliver 12 of the 14 songs, each a hymn to a wicked hereafter.

“It’s good to be a ghost,” they sing. “It’s better to be dead.”

A chamber musical planted in Maine’s stony soil in the early 1940s, “Whisper House” had its world premiere in 2010 at the Old Globe in San Diego and played London in 2017. It has spent the past couple of years in a kind of limbo, having clocked a single 59E59 performance before the 2020 theater shutdown. It returns, tentatively, in a moment of renewed anxiety and upgraded face masks.

The show, about the fear of the unknown and the trust that love requires, can feel indefinite, too. Directed by Steve Cosson, artistic director of the cherished theater company The Civilians, it has mood for days. (All credit to Jorge Arroyo and Jeff Croiter’s sepulchral lights and a surfeit of stage fog.) And the music haunts prettily. When the ghosts are singing, anyway. But none of the living characters feel precisely real and the book scenes totter under the weight of metaphor.

“Whisper House” opens with a boy named Christopher (Wyatt Cirbus, who looks as if he has never seen the sun), a near-orphan sent away to live with his aunt, Lily, a lighthouse keeper in coastal Maine.

Lily (Samantha Mathis) has a Japanese employee, Yasuhiro (James Yaegashi), and a nodding friendship with the local sheriff, Charles (Jeb Brown). This is 1942. Roosevelt’s executive order and the threat of nearby U-boats mean that Yasuhiro has to go. But he wants to stay, and Lily wants that, too. The ghosts, with Christopher as their pawn, have other ideas.

That sets the lighthouse table for tragedy. But the trouble with the story, conceived with Keith Powell, is that you have to abandon psychology to make it happen. Would a woman with Lily’s stoic good sense trust a traumatized child with a secret? Would Yasuhiro try to bribe him? The more you think about the living characters, the flimsier they seem. If your ghosts are your most substantial creation, what has gone wrong?

“We don’t believe in you,” the ghosts sing to the living. They have a point. The plot also absolutely depends on ignoring the wet and the weather.

But the music is mostly lovely, if unvaried. As in Sheik’s score for “Spring Awakening,” it melds pop balladry with folk and it carries his very particular mix of romanticism and cynicism. (Sheik has a reputation for one-hit wonders, but this ignores some fine, if piecemeal, work over the years, as well as his lush Gullah-inflected score for “The Secret Life of Bees.”) The lyrics, co-written with Jarrow (“SpongeBob SquarePants the Musical”), are clever for the ghosts and pallid for everyone else, freighting Yasuhiro with the awkward solo “The Art of Being Unseen.” That neither Yaegashi, always a welcome presence, or Mathis, stuck with a costume-party Katharine Hepburn accent, is a vocal powerhouse probably doesn’t help. The orchestrations, credited to Sheik, Jason Hart, Simon Hale and Wiley DeWeese, contain some fine surprises, such as the bright blare of a horn. The choreography, from Billy Bustamante, mostly seems an afterthought.

If the show spends about 85 of its 90 minutes inclining toward tragedy, its creators have something gentler in mind. The ultimate theme of “Whisper House” is that we must love another or die, a comforting thesis in a moment that demands — in every auditorium — so much mutual faith and care. Then again, there are the paired, smirking ghosts to imply the contrary. Turns out you can love another and die.

'Whisper House'Through Feb. 6 at 59E59 Theaters, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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