Credit: Michael Brosilow

“We don’t know what’s real. All we do is say things.” —David Mamet, in The Cryptogram

It was the staircase that did it—that long, dark, threatening expanse of steps the boy never ascends completely until the final shattering moments of Odradek, Brett Neveu’s latest exercise in family horror. Looking at it during the House Theatre of Chicago’s premiere production, I finally realized where I’d seen it before: in David Mamet’s The Cryptogram.

Mind you, I don’t know whether Neveu has read or seen Mamet’s 1995 play about a kid caught up in his parents’ disintegrating marriage, trying and failing to make sense of the veiled language the adults around him use to discuss the undiscussable. But the parallels are startling.

Then again, so are some others. Inspired by a Franz Kafka parable, “The Cares of a Family Man”—in which the Odradek is a little whatsit resembling a spool of thread—Neveu’s script is described in House press materials as “part midwestern gothic fairy tale, part Hitchcockian thriller.” But with its full-frontal depictions of weird medical conditions, mental disintegration, and self-inflicted gore, David Cronenberg titles like The Fly and Naked Lunch offer a more apt cinematic parallel. Squint and you might see hints of Tracy Letts’s 1996 drama, Bug, as well. But Neveu and director Dexter Bullard (who’s also staged Bug) have crafted something strange, foreboding, and irresistibly haunting on its own terms—something that goes far deeper than the House’s usual hero’s-journey, heart-on-its-sleeve homiletics.

Visually, it’s also the darkest House show I’ve seen. Collette Pollard’s crepuscular set and Lee Keenan’s sickish sepia lighting work in tight tandem to personify the decaying home occupied by troubled teen Kyle (a wraithlike Joey Steakley) and his father (David Parkes, note-perfect as a well-meaning but emotionally stunted heartland patriarch).

Mom has jumped ship, and our introduction to son and father comes with Kyle entering dad’s bedroom and punching him in the head as he sleeps. And yes, Kafka’s creature is an increasingly horrifying presence. Visible and audible only to Kyle, the Odradek becomes, literally, the monster under the stairs, composed of anthropomorphic wads of fabric and sticks (designed by Dan Ker-Hobert and Bernie McGovern, operated by Lizzie Breit). Josh Schmidt’s stripped-down but insinuating score—beautifully performed live by double bassist Ruben Gonzalez—adds the final touch of claustrophobic doom.

But Neveu, like Mamet, considers words a terrible monster, too. The more we try to categorize and catechize experiences the more they take on grotesque shapes and taunt our tenuous grasp on reality. Kyle visits a doctor (Carolyn Defrin) who provides him with meds and peppers him with a series of questions and word games. “What color is your mother’s hair? What color are your mother’s eyes? What color is your mother’s ring? What is your mother’s favorite color?” His answers shift from scene to scene, emphasizing his apparent break with reality.

Kyle’s awkward attempts to bond with his father also break down as dad embarks on an affair with the doctor. Parkes’s early efforts to make time with Defrin’s self-contained MD are a comic highlight of Odradek, demonstrating Neveu’s gift for anatomizing the banality of everyday discourse. After they make a coffee date for the Midtown Cafe, she asks, “Where is it?” Pause. “Midtown,” he replies.

In some ways, Odradek fits the usual House MO: tormented teen confronted by the demons of loss. But it also goes beyond both the House’s and Neveu’s usual obsessions to become its own alluring beast, riddled with narrative uncertainty. Is Kyle mutilating himself, or is he the victim of a rare medical disorder? Is the doctor an agent of evil deliberately coming between Kyle and his father, or is she just a reminder of the loss of his mother, grown threatening in his mind? The dramaturgical fillips can feel excessive at times, but the tangled threads had sufficient tension to hold my interest.

In Kafka’s tale, the Odradek is an apparently innocuous presence, explicitly likened to a child. But as in The Cryptogram, there’s a suggestion in Neveu’s play that adults fear their children and the stories they can tell. Perhaps the key lies in the last line of “The Cares of a Family Man,” which can be read as inverting the notion that the worst thing a person can face is the loss of a child. The Odradek “does no harm to anyone that one can see, but,” the narrator confesses, “the idea that he is likely to survive me I find almost painful.” That’s the real monster, both under the stairs and in Neveu’s world. No words can give it a comforting shape.