The Gingerbread House

As old as Hansel and Gretel and as new as the latest chapter in greed, Mark Schultz's The Gingerbread House is a strong work, a comedy of horror. Powerfully acted, with a cast that could easily shift to Broadway, the StageFarm presentation is an evening that leaps from jolt to jolt, climaxing in a scene so devastating it even shut up the guffawing audience males who thought everything was just too funny for words.

Right at the top, we get this from Brian, one half of an attractive couple watching TV: "I got an idea," he says to wife Stacey. "Don't laugh. We are a little stressed -- the money, the kids. I think we should sell the kids." And so they do, to an Albanian couple, who, they unreliably find out through projected messages, may or may not be exploiting their children. Helping Stacey and Brian do the deed, as he is to "help" them throughout, is Marco, their friend and Brian's slippery colleague. As Marco views the transaction, he is not exactly selling the children; rather, in a line typical of the play's gallows humor, he's "brokering an offspring exchange."

Everything is a transaction, everything has a price, and opportunity is everywhere. Stacey is a crack travel salesman, able to put a customer on an expensive cruise she clearly doesn't want. Brian wants to be accepted into his firm's club. Marco exacts a heavy price for his assistance. ("The world doesn't work this way," says Stacey. "It does," answers Marco. "The world says 'tough luck.' ")

Direction is credited to Evan Cabnet, although Alex Kilgore was listed until an announcement two days before opening. Whoever is responsible, the intriguing staging never loses sight of the characters' underlying unhappiness. These are not merely fairy-tale villains but distressed mortals striving to be imperturbable while their eyes become watchful, suspicious, haunted, furious.

As Stacey, Sarah Paulson adds layers of puzzlement and doubt to an outwardly agreeable surface. Prim and secure, guilt-ridden and vengeful, her crackup is gut-wrenching. As Brian, Jason Butler Harner swings from rumpled and loose to fastidious and so tightly wound he throws himself against walls. As Marco, Bobby Cannavale is the oily yet compelling snake, a figure so irresistible he could easily sell the Brooklyn Bridge. As Fran, the confused travel customer, Jackie Hoffman tamps down her natural comic goofiness to paint a touching picture of a spinster alone with her dying cat. As Collin, Stacey's randy colleague, Ben Rappaport is smarmy but not cartoonish.

Against menacingly sterile walls, the characters play out their charade. The program quotes Simone Weil's "Evil when we are in its power is not felt as evil but as necessity or even a duty." The great strength of the tension-filled Gingerbread House is its dual depiction of civilization's cozy veneer and slimy undercurrent.

Presented by the StageFarm at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place, NYC. April 18-May 10. Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sunday, 5 p.m. (212) 868-4444 or Casting by Calleri Casting.