In her online profile, Abigail seems like the perfect nanny, and that’s what Tom and Evelyn need to make their problem go away. They’ve been dealing with this hassle ever since Tom’s brother died and left his young children in their care.
What with their go-go global lifestyle — so many planes to catch, so many TED Talk-style lectures to give — they’re a less than ideal choice, guardian-wise. Surely the children’s upbringing is an obligation they can outsource?
“We’re really looking for someone to take over the kids completely,” Tom tells Abigail shortly into the job interview, and if he speaks with the obliviousness of the egregiously entitled, that doesn’t deter the levelheaded nanny from signing on.
The children, Miles and Flora, live with a housekeeper at Tom and Evelyn’s country home, and soon Abigail moves there to join them. In the interest of full disclosure, her new employers might have mentioned that the place is riddled with ghosts.
Spookiness is scarce, though, in “Strange Window: The Turn of the Screw,” a multimedia adaptation of Henry James by the Builders Association that shifts between the contemporary world and the 19th century. With a few clever tweaks to her outfit, the modern Abigail (Lucia Roderique) becomes the governess from James’s “The Turn of the Screw.” (Costumes are by Andreea Mincic.)
The novella — in which the bizarre tale of the governess is a story within the story, told to a gathering of friends at Christmastime — is so unnerving that you wouldn’t want to read it alone late at night. But this production by Marianne Weems, at the BAM Harvey Theater through Dec. 15 as part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, comes alive only when it leaves the Victorian era for our own.
In the contemporary timeline, Tom (Sean Donovan) and Evelyn (a deliciously shallow Hannah Heller) regularly rate Abigail’s performance on an app, though they’re less scrupulous about paying her on time — never mind the hazardous duty she has pulled, trying to keep ghosts from preying on the children. (Miles and Flora are played by Joe Solava and Finley Tarr, but their lines are voiced by Mr. Donovan and Ms. Heller.)
And when the illiterate housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Moe Angelos), is corralled into one of Evelyn’s lectures like a human lab specimen into a science experiment, Evelyn whispers outrageous contempt right into her ear.
“You’re nothing,” Evelyn says, so far over the line that of course it’s funny. “You’re no one. You can’t even read, and I’m not paying you to be here.”
Class privilege and the gig economy are two of the primary concerns of “Strange Window,” written by James Gibbs. The precarious position of women who work as household help is of particular interest, with both iterations of Abigail cowed, straitened and ultimately stranded, and yet expected to be ladylike at all times.
These themes are more teased than developed, though, and the play’s two very disparate strands fail to twine together meaningfully.
Visually and aurally, it’s a striking production. (The set is by Neal Wilkinson, copious black-and-white video by Austin Switser, lighting by Jennifer Tipton, sound and original music by Dan Dobson.) But the chaotic layering of video and live performance foils the Victorian sections of the show.
If a ghost story is going to frighten people, it needs to draw them close. “Strange Window” keeps us at a puzzled remove.
Strange Window: The Turn of the Screw
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Strange Window: The Turn of the Screw
Through Dec. 15 at BAM Harvey Theater, Brooklyn; 718-636-4100, bam.org. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.
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