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THEATER REVIEW: “The Mystery Plays” makes San Diego premiere at ion

The mystery begins before the show, as an apparent ghost walks upstage, roaming past and occasionally lingering in the windows of what turns out to be a train station.

“We are all of us on a journey. Our lives are paths we walk alone,” a Rod Serling-esque Mystery Man (John Polak) says. A tall man in a black trench coat, he narrates the first of two one-acts that comprise Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s “The Mystery Plays,” running through Sept. 15 at ion theatre’s BLKBOX in Hillcrest. Glenn Paris directs.

The first piece (“The Filmmaker’s Mystery”) comes from the world of Hitchcock, H.P. Lovecraft and “The Twilight Zone,” and involves an accidental meeting and an apparently accidental train crash that kills all 57 passengers – all except horror filmmaker Joe Manning (Ethan Tapley), who had gone to get beer for himself and seatmate Nathan West (Benjamin Cole), inexplicably stepped off the train and found himself stranded when the train left without him.

Now Joe is left to wonder why he alone was spared and what, if anything, this means in the cosmic sense.

Aguirre-Sacasa, who has written for TV (“Glee,” “Big Love”) and Marvel Comics (not to mention co-authoring the book rewrite for the “Spider-Man” musical now on Broadway), has a facility with characters and dialogue, and has written some choice bits which this ace cast delivers with great panache. Sherri Allen, for example, is excellent as Joe’s mother Patty and a total hoot as his agent Amanda. The same is true of Tapley and Cole (both new to me, and most welcome), and of Polak, who stalks through both pieces in most unnerving fashion.

“The Filmmaker’s Mystery” bops along like a good ghost story should until the plot starts to derail like the train, eventually getting mired in a weird and preachy ending that didn’t work for me.

But kudos to the crack design team – Brian Redfern, for a simple but effective set design; James Dirks, who contributes an effectively creepy sound design; Karin Filijan’s shadowy lighting, and especially to Claudio Raygoza, whose spot-on projections set the mood.

There’s no mystery at all about “Ghost Children,” in which an attorney named Abby (Grey) returns to her hometown of Medford, Oregon to come to grips with a horrible crime in which her 17-year-old brother Ben (Nick Kennedy) murdered their abusive parents and younger sister.

Abby is still haunted by the part she played in that event, and the question is whether, 16 years later, she can forgive either herself or her brother.

This tale is a family drama lacking most of the humor of its predecessor, though Cole’s demeanor and facial expressions as cab driver Sam Stimson are a treat to watch. Polak, as the caretaker of the cemetery where the murdered are buried, provides the homespun psychologizing Abby seeks, and Allen plays an assistant federal defender assigned to get a new trial for Ben on the grounds of incompetent representation.

This is one of seven San Diego premieres ion will present this season. The two halves of this show aren’t a particularly happy fit, but Glenn Paris’ direction is sterling and the acting and production values are so high that it’s definitely recommended.

The details

“The Mystery Plays” run through Sept. 15 at ion theatre’s BLKBOX, 3704 Sixth Ave. in Hillcrest.

Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 4 and 8 pm.

For tickets, call 619-600-5020.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.