Constance Wu and Finn Wittrock on ‘2:22’ at the Ahmanson

Horror was key to helping the box office recover from a pandemic-induced torpor. As it turns out, the genre might just as well lend itself to live theater.

2:22 – A Ghost Story, which opened at the Ahmanson Theater this month and runs through December 4, is on track to become the Center Theater Group’s second best-selling production since the company closed in the wake of the pandemic almost a year ago year was reopened. (The Broadway musical “Hadestown” is the first.) Opening night for “2:22” was the first to sell out since, and the company says it’s seeing some of its biggest houses since before the pandemic.

Why? Star Constance Wu, who plays young mother Jenny, has a theory. “It’s damn fun. It is exciting. It’s entertaining,” she says while sitting with co-star Finn Wittrock for an interview in the Ahmanson’s Green Room.

A different kind of audience eats up the thrills and chills. A CTG representative notes that the show is younger than a traditional Ahmanson show, “with the 25-34 demo being the highest among our single-ticket buyers.”

Written by Danny Robbins, the play premiered in London’s West End in August 2021 – the first production to open since that city’s pandemic lockdown. Although Robbins had been working on the script for years prior to COVID, the creation of the play at that moment was a happy accident. It naturally drew a younger, less traditional theatrical audience – the very audience most likely to venture into crowds in an uncertain summer.

“I think people have also identified with the idea that a house feels like a strange, strange and slightly scary environment after being in their own homes for far too long,” Robbins says via Zoom from his London home out. “And I think a ghost game felt absolutely perfect for that moment.”

Still, horror doesn’t often find a home on the live stage. The genre as we saw it on screen thrives on carefully cut jump scares, mountains of special effects, CGI monsters, relentless gore and movie magic makeup. Creating horror on stage is more complicated because the tactics used to secure that fear have to be comparatively simple.

Terror in a live setting must be built by the actors, not the editing, notes Wittrock, who has been a menacing regular on various Ryan Murphy chills, including his role as cowardly serial killer Dandy Mott on American Horror Story: Freak Show “.

In comparison, filming horror can be tedious and slow, says Wittrock.

“When you’re working with blood or any kind of violence, those days just last forever, there’s so much to prepare,” he says. “And it’s not scary. It’s funny. We laugh halfway.”

The tension comes much later in the editing room, Wittrock says, while on stage “there’s tension between the characters every night.” In live theater, the delivery of lines must be rapid and limited to maintain momentum. Director Matthew Dunster’s biggest notes during rehearsals, the actors say, were “speed, pace, energy, cues.”

To give audiences goosebumps, “2:22” uses sound (including deafening screams and a driving rock soundtrack), lighting and an ominous digital clock counting down to the eponymous minute of resolution.

Then there’s the baby monitor, a device that—by channeling all the anxieties of new parenthood—becomes a portal to hearing an otherworldly presence.

The outsized menace that comes from this seemingly innocuous piece of technology aligns perfectly with one of the show’s most resonant lines, performed by Wittrock for nervous laughter: “I challenge everyone to be a parent and not be afraid all the time.”

“Having a child is a hack into your feelings,” says Wittrock. “I’m thinking about my kids and I’m raw. So, to imagine your child in danger, you don’t even have to work on the feeling that initially arises in you.

actor one "2:22 - A ghost story" at the Ahmanson Theater.

From left: Constance Wu, Adam Rothenberg, Anna Camp and Finn Wittrock at the US premiere of “2:22 – A Ghost Story” at the Ahmanson Theater in downtown LA

(Craig Schwartz Photography)

Wittrock plays a new father named Sam, whose wife (Wu) hears ghostly footsteps and cries in her daughter’s room every night at 2:22 am. Sam, a skeptic and scientist, doesn’t believe her. When another couple, Lauren (Anna Camp) and Ben (Adam Rothenberg), come over for dinner, Jenny convinces them to stay until the witching hour to prove she didn’t invent anything.

What follows is a mystery behind closed doors, nestled in a drunken dinner party, with the contentious clues marking the time until the truth emerges.

The baby in “2:22” is named Phoebe. She sleeps on an unseen second floor, in a room just above the main stage – every gurgling, whimpering and crying shocks Jenny like an electric current. In this way, baby and monitor merge into the fifth character of the play.

Paranoia when you’re a parent is everywhere, Wu adds, recalling googling sleep training when she had her baby – and getting a hit about cot death.

“It shows up in your feed even if you’re not looking for it,” says Wu, shaking his head.

Children have an important place in horror, Robbins notes.

“There’s something very unsettling about a vulnerable or troubled child,” he says.

And indeed, the genre is awash with examples of children taking true horror to the extreme, including Danny in The Shining, the little demonic Damien in The Omen, and virtually every unfortunate kid in “Child’s Play” to perform “Franchise.

In “2:22,” viewers fear not so much for Phoebe as for her parents, who are clearly crumbling under the weight of their new-parent angst. Is there a ghost, the play asks, or is this sleepless mother slowly going insane? (Knowing parents in the audience might suspect the latter.)

The play is littered with Easter eggs that point to the reality of the situation, but whatever the answer, there are many questions about the nature and meaning of death. Today, Robbins says, people are looking for an otherworldly escape from the chaos and uncertainty of that uniquely terrifying moment.

“We’re confronting our mortality in a way we probably haven’t been since World War II,” Robbins says, citing COVID, climate change and the war in Ukraine. “All these things make us think of death. And I think our core interest in the supernatural is death.”

What happens after we’re gone? A ghost might be scary, says Robbins, but at least it’s still there.

That and what Wu says: The audience just wants to have fun.

‘2:22 — A Ghost Story’

Where: Ahmanson Theater, 135 N. Grand Ave., LA

When: 8 p.m Tuesday to Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Saturday 1 p.m. and 6.30 p.m., Sunday (exceptions on request); ends on December 4th

Tickets: $40-$175 (subject to change)

Information: (213) 972-4400 or centertheatregroup.org

Duration: 2 hours including a break

COVID protocol: Masks are strongly recommended

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-11-16/constance-wu-finn-wittrock-222-ahmanson-theatre Constance Wu and Finn Wittrock on ‘2:22’ at the Ahmanson

Sarah Ridley

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