Best Bets

Real Dead Ghosts

Written by Jonathan A. Goldberg; Directed by Courtney Ulrich
Produced by Shelby Company
Part of the 2014 Frigid New York Festival

Off Off Broadway, New Play
Runs through 3.8.14
Under St. Marks, 94 St. Marks Place


by Weston Clay on 2.27.14

Real Dead GhostsLara Hillier and Nathaniel Kent in Real Dead Ghosts. Photo by Hunter Canning.


BOTTOM LINE: A two-person drama that is beautifully written, solidly performed, and strikingly professional for a festival show.

In the Frigid Festival schedule, Real Dead Ghosts is billed as “a modern day ghost story. Unfinished business kind of shit.” While this isn’t totally untrue, the play is not quite what you’d expect from this description. In this Shelby Company production, written by Jonathan A. Goldberg and directed by Courtney Ulrich, the “ghosts” aren’t so much haunting the prototypical cabin-in-the-woods in which the play is set, as they are bumping around in the heads and hearts of the two characters, Amber (Lara Hillier) and Graham (Nathaniel Kent), a couple trying to have a peaceful and romantic getaway in celebration of their anniversary.

Early in the play, Amber pulls out her itinerary for the trip, which she has so carefully constructed that it even includes restroom breaks. As the play -- which takes the form of an extended conversation between Amber and Graham -- moves along, we start to understand that Amber’s jam-packed itinerary is more of a symptom of her nervousness about being alone with her husband than it is indicative of her organization skills. Their disparity lies in their two divergent definitions of happiness. To Amber, happiness is stability; to Graham, it’s a little more complicated, as symbolized by how pivotal it was for him to watch a customer throw a copy of Jonathan Franzen’s book Freedom across the bookstore where he, until recently, worked. “Freedom was free,” he says, “and I wanted to be free, free as Freedom, and free as that customer who was sick of a world where you can’t throw books.”

He’s now unemployed, a fact that harmonizes with the kind of "freedom" he longs for, but is like a thorn lodged in Amber’s definition of happiness.

As their conversation develops, Amber and Graham’s “ghosts” start to reveal themselves as their frustrations, which are often at odds with their genuine love for each other, push them to come clean about the secrets they've been keeping, both willfully or by omission.

Real Dead Ghosts is certainly a stand-out of the three shows I’ve seen in the Frigid Festival and, I think, is sure to be a favorite of the entire fest. Much of this rests on Goldberg’s dialogue, which rings of Edward Albee -- smart, stylish, rhythmic and, most importantly, consistent, as he constructs a world that is more poetic than our own, but believable nonetheless. The phrase, “We were driving through the desert, or whatever Wyoming is,” has followed me around ever since I heard it because, well, how do you describe Wyoming's desolate landscape? Even better, Hillier and Kent (who also boast an array of New York credits) have no problem delivering this rather demanding dialogue; it rolls off their tongues so naturally that Goldberg's special language settles into a seemingly everyday speak.

The cast and crew also boast some solid New York credentials (the scenic designer April Bartlett, for instance, is apparently an Art Director for NBC’s Today Show). Considering this, I think one reason Real Dead Ghosts stands out so much could be its particular intention for being in the Frigid festival. While many shows are making rounds, traveling from festival to festival, I suspect that Real Dead Ghosts is using this Frigid appearance as leverage for getting itself produced right here in New York. I hope it works, but perhaps this should be considered when we compare this sleek and solid show to some of the rough-and-tumble efforts made by festival artists who are more truly “on the fringe.” This by no means detracts from the wonder that is Real Dead Ghosts, but it could make other good shows look sloppy by comparison.

That said, this is a great opportunity to see some solid and reputable New York theater in an incredibly intimate space for just $16. You really can't beat thatI

(Real Dead Ghosts plays as part of the 2014 Frigid New York Festival at Under St. Marks, 94 St. Marks Place, through March 8, 2014. Remaining performances are Saturday, March 1st at 10PM; Wednesday, March 5th at at 7:05PM; and Saturday, March 8th at 5:15PM. Tickets are $12-$16 and are available at or by calling 212.868.4444.)