In Paula Fox’s novel, Desperate Characters, beleaguered heroine Sophie Bentwood is assailed by vague fears and the real menace that lies just outside, or near, her Brooklyn brownstone. At a certain point, though, Sophie decides that, “I am equal to what is outside,” which acts as a stand against powerlessness, and an acknowledgment that she isn’t as sweet and victimized as she’d like to think. All four characters in Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s new play, King of Shadows, are dealing with the same kind of dread that Sophie does, but the playwright gives two of them a fantasy out that goes from suggestively creepy to outright sentimental by the end.
Aguirre-Sacasa has had plays performed at Manhattan Theatre Club, so it’s a bit of a surprise that his newest work would premiere at the venerable Theater for the New City. This is a writer who is equally pledged to writing for Marvel Comics, but he uses his training in comics for delicate, non-obvious effects in his playwriting. The comic book world runs underneath King of Shadows like a quiet subway system, stopping every now and then to add mystery to the loss of a pair of parents, or making itself known visually with a gently swaying greenish curtain or a large patterned shadow on a wall. The play goes its own way; there are several moments that should be silly, but they aren’t, somehow, because of the conviction the actors bring to the material.
In an all-stops-out performance, Kat Foster plays Jessica Denomy, an earnest graduate student working on a dissertation about homeless youth. Listen to that name: Jessica Denomy. The first name is ordinary, and she is a very ordinary, chipper girl, talking in an airy rush, striving to conceal her tough, managing personality. Foster plants her feet inward, at awkward angles, and her jittery body language is a seismograph of her anxieties, the dark side that lives in her last name. But Jessica has a kind of solidity and impatience, too. When her young sister, Sarah (Sarah Lord), condemns her with the kind of blisteringly honest words only a teenager can muster, Jessica remains immovable, even as Foster shows us how she’s starting to fall apart.
Jessica becomes inveigled with a fanciful teen runaway who calls himself Nihar (Satya Bhabha). In a lengthy scene toward the end of King of Shadows, Jessica hurls all sorts of angry questions at Nihar; it goes on far too long, but Foster finds such gradations in confrontation that it feels like the climax of the play. She has just been confronted by her cop boyfriend Eric (Richard Short), who expresses his own fear of the unknown at key points, and Foster shows us how Jessica needs to get a little bit of her own back after being thoroughly hurt by Eric.
Nihar is gay, and 15-year-old Sarah has a girlfriend, but they fall in love with each other in an entirely convincing way. Lord plays against the “sassy teen” conventions of her role by highlighting this girl’s emotional openness as well as her apprehensions and misgivings, which are reflected in her eyes as she reaches out for Nihar. To her, he represents a dangerous kind of sexiness. If anything, Aguirre-Sacasa could have gone further with this material, or at the very least finished it more decisively. Instead, he closes on a fuzzy-headed longing for escape that feels too generalized after the wayward, exploratory tone of the rest of his play.