Noah Lamanna (Eli) Photo: Kevin Berne.

Let the Right One In

Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Written by:
Toba Singer
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What makes vampire stories appeal to civilized people with otherwise impeccable taste has never been apparent to me. The incisors and blood are fakes and the bridge to bats, a wingspan too far. Living on blood alone fails to console that man cannot live by bread alone.

So I was looking for justifications in this Swedish-generated vampire story that originated in a novel, was optioned as a film, a TV series, and now, we have this much touted production which made its debut in London. None of the few fundamentals about vampire monoculture that I’ve managed to pick up succeed in connecting the two unrelated plots that vie for attention as the controlling argument for this anemic treatment of the theme of anti-social bloody acts. On the contrary, the plot feels starkly, if not insipidly unhinged.

Oskar (Diego Lucano) is a young adolescent whose father is absent and party to a relationship with another man. Oskar’s unloved and unappreciated mother drinks. His classmates bully him, His teachers and the police fail him, and so, logically, he flirts with the fantasy of knifing his adversaries, but when confronted with their menacing behavior, shuns retribution. In other words, he’s a good candidate for Incel or a Proud Boy’s 18-year jail sentence, but the obstacle to looking for that kind of love in all the wrong places appears before him in the person of a new neighbor, Eli (Gaby Policano), whom he hears arguing with her presumed father every night.

The neighborhood is on alert: someone is murdering innocent passersby in the snowy woods that connect Oskar’s school, home, and candy store. We learn that Eli is a vampire, and her possessive pseudo-father is the murderer who sources meals for her. The candy store owner and a school functionary or two, show Oskar some sympathy, but Eli is the only character who exhibits any ongoing interest in his well-being. Her motives may not be pure because her benefactor is growing old, and she will soon need a new conduit for her sanguine meals. Oskar’s teacher helps him train so that he can defend himself against the bullies. Eli weighs in on the moral question of whether violence to defend himself is justifiable. When Oskar realizes that Eli engages in violent acts to feed herself, he finds the gumption to take on the bullies, but only half-heartedly. Ultimately, Eli comes to his rescue. And the rest of the plot contains spoilers.

The problem is that this play is entirely plot-driven by it placing a moral equals sign between two unlike quantities: real life social alienation and the blood lust gourmanderie of a quasi-friendly vampire. So, the controlling argument is neither Oskar’s need to “man up” to take on the bullies nor Eli’s entitlement to glug feral nutrition by any means necessary, but a very confusing misalliance of the two. And the script? It is rife with dialogue such as “Your mother was right about you, Oskar. You must go back to her,” and Oskar’s mother’s negotiating over how far out of the house he can wander (no further than the courtyard) because the woods are full of dangerous people. To these abominations, add the teasing of the candy store owner by mimicking him as a chimp, and a scene whose only production value is lack of originality. In it, Oskar’s mother, who is drunk and sad, tucks herself into bed with him, after which they engage in a blanket tug-of-war with a zero-sum resolution. It leaves you pitying Sigmund Freud. The show’s outsized ear-splitting score and misbegotten choreography serve the story not at all. Everyone playing a young adolescent is too old to be believable. So the bullying scenes, meant to frighten, end up as caricatures of every bad teen bullying scene ever, bearing the additional blight of 20-something actors forcing themselves to whine, albeit unfeelingly, the “sticks and stones” names “Bi-itch” and “Piggy” at wide-eyed Oskar.

As Eli, Gaby Policano turns in the best performance because she manages to layer dimension, grace, and pacing into her role as neighborhood bloodsucker. She is kind, unfailingly cautious, and yet a proponent of defensive violence when all other means have failed. Tantalizing as a Rubik’s cube may be in a dorm room, onstage it turns out to be a less than riveting prop.

Some reviewers have called the play “disturbing.” Yes, but mostly in ways that you wouldn’t have expected.
Toba Singer

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