A blood-spackled man in street clothes — a vampire — crouching and staring intensely
Noah Lamanna (Eli) in the West Coast premiere of the National Theatre of Scotland production of Let the Right One In. Credit: Kevin Berne

One narrative rarely sweeps through the public consciousness the way the 2004 Swedish vampire novel Let Me In by John Ajvide Lindqvist has done. The spellbinding and shocking novel about a 12-year-old boy’s budding relationship with a vampire was made into a 2008 Swedish film, a 2010 American film, a 2013 National Theatre of Scotland play (that then went to London and New York), and an unloved one-season 2022 Showtime TV series. Surely, this story still resonates with today’s consciousness.

Let the Right One In, Berkeley Rep, through June 25

And now Berkeley Rep has joined the vampire media frenzy and produced perhaps one of the most unusual plays of its history. Based on the original National Theatre of Scotland play, the West Coast premiere of Let the Right One In is the first horror play I have ever seen. And, truth be told, it’s not a genre I love. But at the hands of playwright Jack Thorne, director John Tiffany and choreographer Steven Hoggett (the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child team), and with marvelous acting, music, and scenic design, I was entirely enthralled and mesmerized. However, you must know that I avoided looking at several of the graphic blood-ridden scenes.

What about Let the Right One In so powerfully captures the imagination? It’s the complex relationship that develops between the two outsiders — lonely, bullied 12-year-old Oskar (Diego Lucano) and Eli (Noah Lamanna), the ageless androgynous vampire who befriends him. Both outcasts, locked in their individual aloneness, meet, and find acceptance and companionship. Their circumstances evoke our compassion.

Jon Demegillo, Nicole Shalhoub, Erik Hellman and Jack DiFalco in Let the Right One In. Credit: Kevin Berne

The fact that Oskar is willing to accept Eli’s bizarre behavior speaks to how isolated and unloved he is. Brutally bullied by schoolmates and mistreated by his divorced parents, Oskar gets his first glimmer of acceptance from Eli. And in some ways, Eli’s blood-sucking, which is beyond Eli’s control, is more acceptable as life-sustaining than is the bully boys’ chosen behavior.

The inventive stage is set in a forest of white birch tree trunks, with snow covering the stage floor (Christine Jones, Scenic Design). A climbing apparatus is the lone fixture, although some props, furniture, and a swimming pool are subtly moved on and off the stage, as needed. The music accompanying the play, from Ólafur Arnalds’ album For Now I Am Winter, although slightly melodramatic at times, adds an additional dramatic dimension. But the ballet-like movements by the ensemble players seemed at times unnecessarily exaggerated and more arty than artistic.

It’s hard to categorize Let the Right One In, and that is its uniqueness. It’s part horror story, part coming-of-age story, part love story, part fairy tale (à la Grimm, not Disney), and part allegory. And it’s this combination of human suffering and compassion that keeps audience members glued to their seats (though their eyes may be wide shut).

Let the Right One In runs through June 25 at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. It’s approximately 2 hours, plus a 15-minute intermission. Patrons must wear masks in the theater but not in the lobby. Tickets $43-$119, subject to change, can be purchased online or by phone at 510 647-2949.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the name of the actor who plays Oskar. He’s played by Diego Lucano.

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Emily S. Mendel

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...