The visuals are magnificent even before the house lights go down: a silvery, wintry birch forest. A single tall light pole illuminating the starkly beautiful scene. Schoolboys and others trudging silently through the snow. It’s breathtaking—and mysterious. And what is that large, odd contraption stage right—a jungle gym? All will be revealed, quite impressively, by the end of the two-hour (plus intermission) drama.
The set design evokes the iciness of Scandinavia itself, where “Let the Right One In” originated as a 2004 Swedish novel and 2008 film, both by John Ajvide Lindqvist, then adapted, in 2013, for the stage by Jack Thorne for this National Theatre of Scotland production. It arrives at Berkeley Repertory Theatre with, for the first time in its touring life, an American cast.
That elegant set design, by Christine Jones; the way tidy suggestions of set pieces are moved effortlessly on and offstage to represent different places (a bedroom, a school gym, a candy store); the dreamy choreography (by Steven Hoggett, movement director) so well performed by the nine actors—those elements are by far the best thing about the play.
The story, the dialogue, the (non-dance) acting (as directed by John Tiffany)—not so much.
Oskar (a believably down-trodden Diego Lucano) is a pre-teen with two horrific parents: a boozy, divorced mother (a histrionic Nicole Shalhoub) and a disconcertingly hostile father (Erik Hellman). If that’s not enough, Oskar’s also bullied at school by a gang of two—he hides in his locker from them, is humiliated by them at every turn, is a wimp at P.E. and so on.
When a decidedly odd, non-gender-specific teenager, Eli (Noah Lamanna, appealing for the most part) and (presumed) father, Hakan (Richard Topol), move in next door, the two kids become instant friends.
Oh, and Eli (don’t worry, no spoilers) is a vampire.
This is a play that hints at complex relationships: Lonely Oskar and very strange Eli, who now and then distorts their body in distractingly weird ways. Eli and Hakan, who’s a very unusual sort of guardian. Oskar and his tormenters. Oskar and the owner of the local candy store. Oskar and the simpatico gym teacher (Julius Thomas III). Oskar and each of his parents.
But these relationships never fully take shape. Partly that’s because the dialogue is largely stilted, cliché-ridden. Presumably the dance sequences are meant to fill in the gaps, or further the plot and character development, the way songs in musicals are meant to do. But they feel like lovely, stand-alone displays. In one gorgeous dance scene, Oskar and his needy mother struggle to share a bed for the night, perhaps infiltrate each other’s dreams, but the movement, intriguing as it is, doesn’t help us understand their relationship in a meaningful way.
Of course, this is not meant to be a realistic play, what with the vampires and the dancing and the overly dramatic and obtrusive music (from an album by Ólafur Arnalds).
But at the very least the central relationship between the two kids should feel truthful. Yet how are we supposed to believe in the authenticity of a bullied boy who suddenly blurts to the gym teacher, “How do you know when you’re in love?” Like so much of “Let the Right One In,” blood and gore and violence aside (that part is fun), the way people, and vampires, communicate just doesn’t ring true.
It should be mentioned that the opening night audience was ecstatic. And there’s plenty to love about the production values. But something is missing in the play’s human/vampiric heart.
“Let the Right One In” continues through June 25 at the Roda Theatre, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $24-$107. Call (510) 647-2929 or visit berkeleyrep.org.