There is no green projectile vomit in the underwhelming new stage production of The Exorcist, running through Aug. 12 at L.A.’s Geffen Playhouse. There are no spinning heads. There is no spider walk, simulated masturbation with a crucifix, or gruesome makeup. For anyone anticipating an exact re-creation on stage of director William Friedkin’s blockbuster 1973 horror film — widely considered one of the most shocking and terrifying movies ever made — you can exorcise those expectations right now. This stripped-down, cerebral take on the story of a demonically possessed young girl is more interested in stimulating ruminations about the nature of evil and the meaning of faith than inducing anyone to scream, faint, or fumble for a barf bag.
In adapting William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel, playwright John Pielmeier (Agnes of God) sticks to the basic story we all know: An ancient demon invades the body of an innocent young girl named Regan MacNeil (Emily Yetter, who is a young adult rather than a child), and, after exhausting every effort to cure her through medicine and psychiatry, her desperate movie-star mother (Brooke Shields) calls upon Father Damien Karras (David Wilson Barnes), who is undergoing his own crisis of faith, and Father Merrin (Richard Chamberlain), an experienced exorcist. But aside from some vaguely spooky atmospherics, the occasional startling burst of loud noise, and one climactic moment of levitation (an illusion engineered by Teller of the duo Penn and Teller), Pielmeier and director John Doyle don’t try to wring many scares out of the material.
Instead, with a starkly lit set consisting of just two chairs, a table, wrought-iron walls, and a large suspended crucifix, this rather stiff and somber production is largely devoted to delivering abstract messages about God and doubt and the importance of hope in the face of evil. The actors (who never leave the stage) do their best within the confines of Doyle’s overly mannered approach but are rarely able to work up much convincing emotion. (Regan’s possession is suggested through writhing, contortion, and creepy voices delivered in unison by the male cast members.) The result may not be a Carrie: The Musical-style disaster, but, unlike Satan, this Exorcist never works its way inside of you and really takes hold. C
(Tickets: geffenplayhouse.com or 310-208-2028)