As if the first year of college isn’t anxiety-inducing enough for California teen Lexi, she’s been sent off to the University of Connecticut by her mother with a cautionary urban legend planted in her head: there’s a serial killer with a hook for one hand who preys upon young women. Thanks, Mom.
Whether the murderous madman is real in UCSD MFA grad Lauren Yee’s “Hookman” is purposely ambiguous. But there’s no shortage of graphic evidence in the 2015 play that Yee has referred to as an “existentialist slasher comedy” that he exists, at the very least on the power of suggestion. Blood turns up everywhere – on clothing, on knives, on Lexi’s own hands. The Hookman, meanwhile, is a masked figure naturally dressed in black. Or is he just in Lexi's mind?
San Diego State’s School of Theatre, Television and Film is staging “Hookman” in association with Moxie Theatre under the direction of Moxie’s executive artistic director, Jennifer Eve Thorn. All the “Hookman” actors and crew members are SDSU undergrads or graduate students. “Hookman,” was actually workshopped in 2012 at UCSD’s Baldwin New Play Festival, the same year Moxie produced Yee’s “A Man, His Wife, and His Hat” (since retitled “The Hatmaker’s Wife”).
With all the stage blood and the one-act play’s cutting takes on college life, “Hookman” is undoubtedly a treat for the students involved. Kennedy Garcia, playing the lead role of Lexi, admirably carries the show, which is presented in SDSU’s rather awkward Experimental Theatre. Her fellow actors, for the most part, are mired in one-note “type” roles: the text-obsessed roommate, the self-involved blond girl, the slacker-sounding boyfriend.
The one supporting character who seems like a real person is Lexi’s best friend, Jess (Dominique Payne). A California flashback to a drive the two are taking from In-N-Out to the movies is “Hookman’s” hook. Jess ends up dead, killed by: A drunk driver? A murderer? Lexi’s reckless driving? The scene plays out three times in the makeshift chassis of a car onstage.
This ambiguity, it turns out, is necessary for Lexi’s self-examination and confrontation with her fragile psyche. Everything that goes down in “Hookman” in between these fateful car scenes, from a grisly murder (the show’s one true fright) to a quixotic encounter at a memorial for the dead Jess, is presented as enigmatic or surreal or both.
Further roiling the waters are Yee’s built-in musings on misplaced victimization, responsibility and culpability, and the complexities in general of trying to find one’s place as a young woman in the micro-society of college, one that can be unjust, high-pressure and even predatory. (Lexi confides to Jess, in one driving flashback: “I think I was raped.”) For existential heft, Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” is repeatedly name-dropped, too.
The issues raised are crucial ones, but there are way too many for a 70-minute play in which the visual effects inevitably cause the thoughtful reflections to lag by comparison. Ultimately, the answer to who or what the Hookman is will depend on which aspect of the production resonates most. (Review originally published in the San Diego Union-Tribune on 3/19/19.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat