Ectoplasm, a new play by Sara Fellini, depicts a dinner party in 1912, thrown by two spiritual mediums, Sara Marshall (Jillian Cicalese) and Kaye Schultz (Caitlin Dullahan-Bates). The party-guests include Ira Orenthall, a Houdini-esque magician (Adam Belvo), who is a former medium turned skeptic, and whose purpose is to debunk; George and Miska Crookes (Nicholas Thomas and Raina Silver), a wealthy couple who approach the séance with the enthusiasm of the newly converted, and in the case of Miska, whose interest is both darker and more enthusiastic than expected. Rounding out the guest list is Elisha Kane (Federico Mostert), a navyman with murky motives. Madame Montfort (Florence Scagliarini), a former prostitute turned high-class socialite, has lent her home for the occasion.
Critics will have their biases, and what other reviewers have cited as the play’s flaws are, in my view, its strengths, from its overload of ideas and subjects to the wild disparity of characters who descend on this one dinner party. Certainly, the world-weary cynicism of many of the attendees seems miles from Miska’s enthusiasm, but 1912 saw its share of cynicism and starry-eyed religiosity; and any dinner party, anywhere in the world, would be likely to touch upon the issues of the day, as this one does. I like a good play-of-ideas, and this is a good one, indeed.
As the evening develops, Sara and Kaye’s friendship and budding, unfulfilled romance is tested by the clash between Kaye’s sincerity and Sara’s perplexing mix of cynicism and genuine faith. Sara believes in spirits and ghosts, and she wonders, against the headwinds of Kaye’s growing exasperation and sadness, why anyone should begrudge her a little profitable skullduggery in the service of such a worthy cause? Madame Montfort’s affection for Sara is revealed; Orenthall’s cheerful skepticism grows threatening; and Elisha’s Kane’s secret is unearthed. The play’s conclusion is scary, funny, unexpected and inevitable.
The performances are varied and excellent, especially Cicalese’s sympathetic portrayal of an admitted charlatan with a heart; Belvo’s chilly rationalism as the magician; and Silver’s cheerfully contemporary performance as Miska, whose ideas turn out to be less absurd than they seem. But the cast is across-the-board terrific.
The staging is appropriately atmospheric and makes the most of the small space.
I’ve been meaning to see this play now for weeks, but the Omicron sweep has kept me stuck at home. Finally, just before the closing weekend, I convinced the family to let me out of the house, and armed with a top-line 3M “auro” N95 mask, I risked death. And I am glad I did! But I am sorry to post this so late in the play’s run. Ectoplasm is in all ways remarkable and profound, beautifully acted and written, witty and chilling. Catch it quickly: it closes Sunday.
Ectoplasm is at the Players Theatre in New York City through February 6.
This review was written by Steven S. Drachman. He is the author of Watt O’Hugh and the Innocent Dead, which is available in trade paperback from your favorite local independent bookstore, from Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and on Kindle.