Culture | October 29, 2021 10:16 am

The McKittrick Hotel’s New Immersive Show Is Utterly Terrifying

The venue behind “Sleep No More” is back with “The Woman in Black,” a spirited murder mystery just in time for Halloween

Ben Porter stars as The Actor in "The Woman in Black" at the McKittrick Hotel.
Ben Porter stars as The Actor in "The Woman in Black" at the McKittrick Hotel.
Jenny Anderson

You probably know the McKittrick Hotel for its eerie early-20th-century charm, ghostly train cars and a series of critically acclaimed theater experiences that began with the beloved Sleep No More. But the eccentric creative hub, which had to close its doors for much of the pandemic, is finally back in partnership with PW Productions and Pemberly Perry with the revival of the critically acclaimed immersive haunt The Woman in Black: A Ghost Story in a Pub.

The title of the show may sound familiar for a couple of reasons: 1) the book of the same name by Susan Hill from which the show was adapted from was also made into a bone-chilling feature film starring Daniel Radcliffe, and 2) the production has actually been staged in the McKittrick Hotel once before, in early 2020. That, of course, was right before the whole world shut down, but at the time, The New York Times had named the show a “Critic’s Pick” and it picked up quite a few other accolades, including “Best Play Revival” from the Off-Broadway Alliance and nominations for three Drama League Awards.

Directed by Robin Herford, The Woman in Black tells the story of a young lawyer who stumbles upon a small town with a grave secret. The show was originally adapted for the stage by Stephen Mallatratt more than 30 years ago, when it premiered in a Scarborough bar. Two years later, the show moved to the West End and has remained there — as well as touring internationally — ever since. But while the show has been to the U.S. before, this is the first time it’s gotten The McKittrick’s site-specific treatment, which means experiencing it as was originally intended: in a pub.

David Acton, who stars as Arthur Kipps in "The Woman in Black," stands with Ben Porter.
David Acton, who stars as Arthur Kipps in “The Woman in Black,” stands with Ben Porter
Jenny Anderson

Trust me when I say that after being deprived of the sweet joys of attending a live performance — with real, breathing, tangible and delightfully talented actors — you deserve to see this show. 

On an appropriately cold and windy fall evening, I had the opportunity to check out The Woman in Black on its opening weekend. I have this strange habit of not researching a show at all before I see it — not even a peek at reviews. I love the idea of settling into an experience without any expectations, which allows the many startles and shocks of the the-a-ter to truly tickle the senses. And while you might assume that I, a writer and marginally educated person, would know that anything with the words “ghost story” in its title could be on par with seeing The Exorcism of Emily Rose alone in a dark theater, you would be wrong.

As my guest and I were ushered into an old-timey elevator that looks like it could break down at any second (but is fully functioning, don’t worry), I began to feel like I had just entered the Haunted House at Disneyland — the whole place is dimly lit, and with the entire audience in masks, every person who walked by carried with them an air of ominous anonymity. Upon exiting the elevator, it was as if we’d emerged from a time machine and been whisked into the 1930s. On our left was a standalone train car complete with flickering lights and a custom drink menu, which included the lavender-infused Sleep No More cocktail (which I, a lavender essential oil fiend, obviously ordered) and shots of Jameson on the house. It’s almost as if the staff was getting us liquored up to quell our nerves for something … most likely the GHOST STORY I mentioned. To our right was the performance room, with a humble stage and rows of chairs divided by spacious walkways in between the seating sections. 

Ben Porter emerges from fog on the set of "The Woman in Black."
Fog machines play a prominent role in the scares that sneak up on guests throughout the show
Jenny Anderson

The crowd was lively, if not for a bit of nervous energy and enduring pandemic-bred social awkwardness (the bar line ran all the way around the back of the room, which is strange for pushy New Yorkers who would normally just elbow their way to the front). But for the most part everyone seemed abuzz with anticipation for the return of live theater, especially here, at the McKittrick, which feels like an illicit, password-for-entry kind of venue even in the most normal of times.

As we settled into our seats and the lights dimmed, a blanket of black settled over the crowd, and it finally dawned on me that I was probably about to be scared shitless over the next two hours. 

While the play was slow to start, with moments of humor and quite a bit of background to cover, it was immediately clear that we were lucky to be witnessing the flair and prowess of lead actors Ben Porter and David Acton, who were both cast in the 2020 production at the McKittrick, as well as the original West End production in London. From there things quickly descended into blood-curdling screams and frequent frights — so frightening, in fact, that the telltale clink of feet toppling drinks seemed to accompany every scare. Let’s just say that intermission, and the opportunity to renew my buzz and soothe my lighthearted anxiety, was much needed.

Ben Porter holds a candle and casts a shadow of his hand across the wall in "The Woman in Black" at the McKittrick Hotel.
Jenny Anderson

Due to a combination of masterful sound design and ingenious lighting tricks (like Porter carrying a candle across a dark set, casting a shadow of his hand that looms across the wall like a spidery ghoul), the show pulls off a hair-raising feat while reversing the roles typified by Sleep No More: here, it’s the actors — rather than the patrons — running between rows and pointing their flashlights off into the distance, hinting that someone (or something?) sinister lurks just out of view. 

Complete with menacing dolls, vengeful lady ghosts, graveyards, fog and the feeling that the Woman in Black is always right behind your shoulder, the production had me literally screaming and digging my nails into my guest’s arm. The whole experience felt like being in the midst of a horror film, right down to the unnerving, drawn-out lead-ups — those moments in every scary movie when you’re pleading with the main character, “DON’T GO INTO THE HAUNTED DUSTY ATTIC, GODDAMNIT!”

As the show ended, the entire audience burst into a standing ovation. Not ready to leave the experience, we slowly made our way up to the rooftop bar Gallow Green for a nightcap and looked out at the city skyline. Despite being creepy as all hell, the show was an absolute delight and a full evening from start to finish.

If you don’t like scary movies, this probably isn’t the show for you. But if you’re up for a devilishly good scare, some superb acting and an evening that feels quintessentially New York? Run as fast as you can.

The Woman in Black is now showing at the the McKittrick Hotel (530 West 27th Street, NYC). Tickets are on sale through January 30, 2022, with performances offered on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m. and matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are priced at $79-$99. In addition, traditional British pub-style fare and draft ales are available to enjoy before the show. Guests of The Woman in Black and the hotel are required to show proof of vaccination upon arriving.