“The Woman in Black” does offer some warm associations with thrillers of the past, as conjured by genre experts like Daphne du Maurier (“Rebecca,” “The Birds”). An old lawyer played by Goodale visits an acting coach (Easton) to prepare for a staged reading of his story, which he hopes will purge the psychological torture of its memory. Together, they reenact the events surrounding the death of a dowager in a suitably misty and remote corner of the realm, and the spectral happenings that keep the local population agitated and at bay.
To the degree that Mallatratt and director Robin Herford shape “The Woman in Black” as a valentine to the actor’s craft, the production conveys a pleasing weightlessness: with a rack of clothes and a few basic props, Easton assumes the role of the lawyer in his younger days, and Goodale takes on an impressive range of supplementary characters. They manage to fill your imagination with the murky images out of English mystery novels and, helped by the projection of the silhouette of a Victorian estate, the stock locales in those books for occult misadventures in creepy, secluded houses.
It’s when “The Woman in Black” wades into the more challenging marshes of shock-value theater that the production loses its edge. In its transparently strenuous efforts to give us a jolt, the entertainment comes to feel anemic: for a ghost, there can be no less dispiriting reaction to a shout of “Boo!” than a shrug — which is the response the machinations here inspire. (Patrons are asked not to divulge the play’s plot secrets, so I won’t illuminate where the spooky stuff falters.)
Theater is better at sending up horror than bottling it: the flawed but flashy musical version of “Beetlejuice” is prima facie evidence. The late, great Charles Ludlam achieved this in smashing style, in his quick-change masterstroke parody, “The Mystery of Irma Vep.” But legitimately scaring you out of your wits remains a tall order in the footlights: the last time it happened for me was five years ago, in Jack Thorne’s chilling adaptation of a Swedish novel and horror movie “Let the Right One In,” for the National Theatre of Scotland.
“The Woman in Black” is a London institution, one of those plays, like Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap,” that may speak affectionately to a British (or tourist) appetite for a play that’s dark, but not too dark. Call it Dark Lite. Meaning that if untroubled sleep is what you are after, you will have come to the right place.
The Woman in Black, adapted from Susan Hill’s novel by Stephen Mallatratt. Directed by Robin Herford. Sets and costumes, Michael Holt; lighting, Kevin Sleep; sound, Rod Mead and Sebastian Frost. About two hours. $39-$79. Through Dec. 22 at Michael R. Klein Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. 202-547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.