Off Broadway Reviews
Todd Robbins is probably most familiar to New York theatregoers for his ghoulishly delightful Play Dead, which opened Off-Broadway in 2010. In addition to eating a lightbulb and (seemingly) dismembering audience members, he recounted macabre stories about gruesome murders. While he classifies the previous show as an "entertainment," Haunt Quest is something else entirely: He describes it as an experience that is "entertaining."
Presented in the loft space at SoHo Playhouse, Haunt Quest feels more like an intimate social gathering than a theatre event. With a maximum of 25 people allowed, there are socially distanced pairs of chairs scattered throughout the room. (Unlike other performances in New York, there is also a smattering of single seats, so tickets do not have to be bought in twos.) Audience members are required to be masked at all times, except, they are told, when sipping their drinks, which can be purchased before the show. Robbins, wearing face covering and gloves, mingles through the audience and engages them directly with questions about their conceptions of the afterlife and experiences with the supernatural.
If Robbins and the audience are equal collaborators in the proceedings, a key player is the building itself. Constructed more than 200 years ago, the property was built on an estate once occupied by Aaron Burr and John Jacob Astor. At one point there was a speakeasy in the basement, and the theatre was established in 1962. (Famously, the original production of The Boys in the Band opened at the Playhouse.) In other words, 15 Vandam Street has its share of colorful stories and lingering souls.
Robbins recounts several anecdotes about the building's beguiling past, and these are the most entertaining parts of the evening. I wanted to hear more about Buster, for instance, the so-named ghost who has a penchant for breaking glasses and spilling patrons' drinks in the downstairs bar. In order to appease him, the bartender has to slam down a shot of liquor and announce into the ethers, "Drinks are on the house, Buster!" And I wanted to know more about the mysterious door-slamming, unexplainable overflowing toilets, and the sightings of an apparition in the building's courtyard that may or not be Aaron Burr.
Instead, much of the evening is spent preparing the space and the congregants for the arrival of ghosts. Using what Robbins dubs "arcane retro-paranormal ghost-hunting techniques," such as numeric magic squares, a Ouija-like board, dangling pendulums, and sensory-awareness exercises, audience members are asked to help summon spirits, shades, and paranormal presences to the space.
Each performance promises to be different depending on the energy, openness, and, of course, phantasms the audience members bring to the room. Unfortunately, as hard as I tried, I could not evoke my inner Madame Arcati and conjure spectral beings á la Blithe Spirit. Instead, I had to rely on the other participants to make the connections. Fortuitously, two audience members the night I attended were able go into a deep trance and call forth the departed.
The funny thing about ghosts, though, is that they do not always come when they are called. Or if they do, they may not have much to say. No offense to my fellow audience members, but Jan and Vince, the ghosts they hosted while under hypnosis, were just not very interesting or much fun. Where is Buster when you need him?
If Haunt Quest does not have the chills and thrills, or even the fiendishly delivered tales, of previous Robbins shows, he is a genial guide through paranormal mysteries. People who are dying for a night back at the theatre need not look too far.