Noah Lamanna (Eli) in the West Coast premiere of the National Theatre of Scotland production of 'Let the Right One In' at Berkeley Repertory (photo: Kevin Berne)

Review: Fangs, but No Thanks, for 'Let the Right One In' at Berkeley Rep


Imagine if John Hughes made a vampire movie, set in Sweden.
Would you like a side of modern dance with that?

Well, that's what's on the menu – along with big gulps of stage blood – at Berkeley Repertory, where the National Theatre of Scotland's mystifying production of "Let the Right One In" plays through June 25.

Based on a novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist which was previously adapted for Swedish and American films – both of which leaned much harder into supernatural horror than the awkward teen angst that battles for primacy here – this handsomely mounted but ultimately insubstantial play is both chilly and silly.

A compelling, bone-deep performance by Noah Lamanna as the melancholy vampire, Eli, provides occasional breakthrough moments of shivery pleasure. But the show as a whole, particularly in its languorous spells of wordless movement, will have audience members enacting their own chair-bound choreography: a sequence of eye rolls, gags, head scratches and yawns.

In a remote rural town, Oskar (Diego Luciano) is the target of school bullies who torment him with emasculating and homophobic locker room slurs. Their Phys Ed teacher (Julius Thomas III) offers lip service support to Oskar but ultimately fails to protect him.

Also pathetically unprotective are Oskar's divorced parents: Drunk Mom and Gay Dad, written not as three-dimensional characters, but further excuses for us to feel awful for the kid (Playwright Jack Thorne's distribution of empathy is a tad uneven).

Diego Lucano (Oskar) and Noah Lamanna (Eli) in the West Coast premiere of the National Theatre of Scotland production of 'Let the Right One In' at Berkeley Repertory (photo: Kevin Berne)

A parallel plotline has murder victims being discovered in the eerie birch woods outside of town, their bodies hung upside down from the trees, their blood drained through slit throats. (The elegant set design, complete with snow flurries, is by Christine Jones.)

Long before the local cops have a clue, the audience learns that the killings are the work of a mysterious stranger, Hakan (Richard Topol), who is collecting life force to feed Eli, whom he refers to as his daughter and keeps hidden away in a steamer trunk.

Eli emerges at mealtimes, after dark, writhing and twitching as if afflicted by fetal alcohol syndrome. Hakan watches on, doting, almost drooling, in a most unfatherly manner.

The stories intertwine when Oskar and Eli cautiously befriend one another and then fall into saucer-eyed puppy love. Eli, both undead and nonbinary, eventually reveals both of these betwixty secrets to Oskar.

Playwright Thorne ("Harry Potter and The Cursed Child") lets ugly, muddled parallels slip into play here, haphazardly implying that there are similarly-anguished limbo states between childhood and adulthood, life and death, and, ahem, male and female.

When Oskar pledges his undying devotion to Eli, it's bad news for Hakan. Horrorphiles will have come to realize that he is Eli's longtime familiar, about to get booted in favor of the warmhearted twink who's meddled in their permafrosty world. Hakan's dismissal is age discrimination at its ugliest, complete with a face full of acid and the audible snap of his spinal cord.

Throughout the proceedings, gelid blue lighting by Chahine Vavroyan and an ever-present, over-amplified score by Gareth Fry – more appropriate for a film than a stage play – combine to create an almost physical barrier between audience and action.

In other hands, the combination of bloody mayhem and teenage trauma might be ratcheted into a Grand Guignol guilty pleasure (Carrie in Lapland!).

But director John Tiffany and movement director Steven Hoggett opt to approach their material with a stately pace, robotically delivered dialogue, and stilted passages of tai chi-style choreography that scream High Art instead of Bloody Murder.

"Let the Right One In" left me out in the cold.

"Let the Right One In," through June 25. $24-$131. Berkeley Repertory, 2015 Addison St. (510) 647-2949

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