Joel Patrick Durham didn't win. When his episodic horror show Nesting debuted at Pilot Season, an annual "theater for TV people" competition hosted by Action/Adventure Theatre, it didn't win a full run at the theater, but it did get a cult following.
Now, a year later, Durham is producing the show on his own and billing it as theater you can binge-watch. On Saturdays, you can even consecutively watch all four "episodes" of the semi-improvised part-sitcom, part-psychological horror play. I didn't take that four-hour route, but I wish I had.
Episode one begins with a terrified Thea (Rose Procter), sitting alone with a bottle of pills, hearing voices. The set is made entirely of cardboard, creating a washed-out backdrop not unlike a TV series does. Scared of being alone, Thea asks her childhood friend Gabe (Nathan Crosby) and his girlfriend Penny (Alwynn Accuardi) to move in. Over the course of four episodes, the characters are all haunted by voices, which manifest in the form of a terrifying villain (Murri Lazaroff-Babin) who turns absurd when he breaks into a funk dance routine. The plot often feels more like a corny sitcom you quasi-watch while folding laundry than invite friends over for The Bachelor-style viewing parties.
Nesting's terrors are mainly a byproduct of its genre. When the light, naturalistic improv gets a sudden punch of terror—blackouts, creaks, a knife—the horror-film flat notes feel surprising in a theater and left me grabbing my roommate or covering my eyes with sweaty palms.
If I could have clicked to watch episode three right away, I would have. Since I did my viewing in two two-episode chunks, I spent the next two days feeling a little dopey for wondering about the fates of characters whose lives seemed on pause the second I left the theater. So live-action cliffhangers work, too. That's thanks mostly to the cast, especially Accuardi, who steals the show as the high-strung Midwesterner who bounces around the house with a perfect ponytail and matching floral prints. Accuardi's Penny foils Procter's Thea, who drags slowly around the house in oversized sweaters, while Procter's breathy voice and vaguely tortured attitude get swallowed by Accuardi and Crosby's chemistry.
Re-entering their world two days later was strangely comforting. As episode three begins with a cheeky 1950s-style theme song and accompanying dance to match, you can forgive the kitsch because it's just good to be back. Episodes three and four can shakily stand on their own, but after the break, the play starts to feel like when you watch Netflix and clean your room at the same time. The improv waxes long and includes a bizarre, unnecessary daydream sequence in which Crosby's Gabe confides in a life-size version of his stuffed-animal tiger.
Nesting might not be the next American Horror Story, but it is well-deserving of its cult and left me wishing for a full season.