In any case, “The Thin Place” is not about to tell you which woman it believes. Either could be inventing her stories, and Linda in particular is hard to pin down. Born in England, she has come to the United States, the home of spiritualism, to practice her profession in a place that respects it. In the middle third of the 90-minute play, at a party that introduces two of her other friends, we learn that she is even advising a political candidate in his dealings with potential voters. Americans and their leaders both need spiritual reassurance.
I almost called that middle third the “middle movement”: The structure of “The Thin Place” is beautifully musical. After the monologues and conversations between the two women in the first part — both Danson and McDonnell are cunningly good — the party ushers in a new tone and new material in the second, as Linda’s cousin Jerry (Triney Sandoval) tries to solve the mystery of Hilda, and a benefactress named Sylvia (Kelly McAndrew) begins to doubt Linda’s bona fides.
But just as this material seems headed into a thin space of its own — there are a few baggy moments whose structural purpose becomes apparent only later — the uncanny crashes headlong into the party. I will not say where the story goes in its nerve-racking final third.
That’s one of the things I love in Hnath’s plays: how far ahead of us they stay. You can never guess, from moment to moment, how the plot will turn, even though the turns rarely seem less than inevitable once they’ve been made. In the same way Hnath has little use for introductions or exposition, he doesn’t mind changing channels abruptly. This puts the audience, if it’s willing, in a constant state of ears-up readiness. More than once I actually thought I saw a ghost. It turned out to be an odd glint in my glasses.
On a macro level, Hnath’s aesthetic restlessness keeps him switching genres, from the religious inquiry of “The Christians” to the literary postscript of “A Doll’s House, Part 2” to the political fantasy of “Hillary and Clinton” — all in the last few years. What they, and now “The Thin Place,” have in common is the pleasure they take in theatricality, customized to their subjects.
This being a story about fear and our hunger for it, suspense is the mode, and Waters’s high-contrast staging, with its abrupt shifts of pace and tone, could hardly be finer in supporting that mood. Visual information is kept to a minimum — the stage is nearly bare throughout — but the glary then nearly infrared lighting (by Mark Barton) and the ambient, then suddenly gasp-inducing sound (by Christian Frederickson) are treated as accomplices in a crime.
I suppose that makes us in the audience the victims: No chiropractor is as manipulative as the teller of a ghost story. Yet if this were just a yarn, it would eventually unravel. Instead, “The Thin Place” keeps on haunting because it presses against the deepest human longings not only for connection but also for exposure. We want to know what’s out there, yes, but we also want it to know us.
The Thin Place
Tickets Through Jan. 5 at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater; Manhattan; 212-279-4200, playwrightshorizons.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.