Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston’s adaptation of DRACULA made its Broadway debut in 1927 and made Bela Lagosi immortal as the title character, for he went on to make the film version of the stage play as we all know. The original production ran a season and then toured for two more years. In 1977, Frank Langella put his stamp on the role and also starred in a subsequent film version. That production won the Tony for Best Revival and played 900 performances on a unique set design by Edward Gorey. Now at the Little Shubert Off Broadway, that same 1927 version of DRACULA is back. This production has its little changes, edits and adjustments, but it is more like the production an audience might have seen in the ‘20s than it should be. That is to say, we have been through a lot with Dracula since Bella Lagosi and the melodramatic hokum of that era’s stage is hard to take seriously today. I wanted to love this production so much, but it was impossible. This material is delicate, for there are nearly ridiculous and grandiose lines that must be said, the trick of Dracula turning into a bat, the ladies fainting and screaming at the sight of shadows and recorded noises such as wolves howling and bats squeaking is all a bit sticky. The vampire recoils from the cross, he smashes a mirror when it is discovered that he does not reflect in it, and overly familiar words like, “I never drink...wine” are uttered. There are also hokey comic bits between a maid and caretaker, Renfield eating his bugs and the pounding of a stake through Dracula’s heart. How to handle all of this so the audience doesn’t giggle? Very carefully, but director Paul Alexander doesn’t seem to have the touch and neither does most of the cast.
Helming the production as Van Helsing is the commanding George Hearn, who gives the entire production credibility. Right behind him is the stalwart Timothy Jerome as Dr. Seward. These two veterans handle this dusty material expertly and everything they say and do is utterly believable. Less so for everyone else, though they give it the old college try, which is all the production amounts to: no more than a rudimentary college production distinguished only by the guest appearance of George Hearn.
Jake Silbermann, known to soap fans as Noah on “As the World Turns,” is Jonathan Harker. He is handsome and likable, but he hasn’t the ability to live within this particular world and comes off as out of place in his British accent and uncomfortable period starched collar and suit. Katherine Luckinbill as the comic maid gets by, but her role asks her to participate in some hocus-pocus that she barely makes believable. As Butterworth the caretaker to Renfield, Rob O’Hare creates a fun comic character that is just about what the play requires of him.
Two characters are rather miss-cast. The worst offense is John Buffalo Mailer (who happens to be the son of Norman Mailer) as Renfield. He is taller than anyone on stage and a strapping lad who is more in line of a romantic leading hero than the slight, bug-eyed, quirky character we have always known Renfield to be. He is played as a southern American with a slow drawl. He isn’t convincingly crazy and he is so robust that when he throws his fits it is unbelievable that the shorter Butterworth could ever control him. I kept waiting for Renfield to throw chairs around the room and single handedly toss Butterworth out the window. Renfield is a great character and a substantial one, both lovable and weird, and here he is such a disappointment that literally half the fun of the production has been sacrificed. The other disappointment is the hard working Emily Bridges (daughter of Beau Bridges) as Lucy, who was thrust into the role days ago when the original actress, Thora Birch, was fired. She tries, bless her, but she hasn’t the beguiling presence to captivate us. Her particular affliction, which takes on a subtle insanity and requires her to be startled by bats on wires and fall under the hypnotic spell of Dracula, not to mention deliver impossible lines of a 1920s ingenue as if she believed them, does not sell.
Now to Dracula, played by the Italian actor making his American stage debut, Michel Altieri: He looks great and has an exotic accent, but he does not possess that otherworldly magic personality that is required. This quality is hard to describe and impossible to teach. So, it is not enough that Mr. Altieri looks right and is dressed in cape and tuxedo, but he must be mesmerizing. Two famous lines from the 1930 film have been added to the play, “I never drink...wine” and “Children of the night, what music they make.” Mr. Altieri can’t say them with any sense of the weight they held when Bela Lagosi said them. In fact, he throws them away, which kept them from being silly, but did nothing to define the character as they had with Bela Lagosi. It wasn’t worth sticking the lines into the play.
That leaves us with George Hearn and Timothy Jerome to hold the show together and it isn’t enough. DRACULA is hard. It must be treated like Shakespeare or the Greek plays where great care is taken to get the line readings to sound natural. It takes a highly seasoned and probably classically trained actor to take these old lines into their being and bring them to life in a way we can believe in them. This cast is full of youngsters without the chops to handle the job, which is why it feels like a college production.
The set by Dana Kenn is old fashioned in its utilitarian aspects, but rather attractive and mood enducing––it was my favorite element of the production. Combined with Willa Kim’s Edwardian costumes and Brian Nason’s very effective lighting, the show looks wonderfully spooky. A few staging touches also make the show enjoyable such as Renfield crawling upside-down along the wall of the Sanatarium (aided by Flying by Foy), a bat flying in the window and up into the rafters was a fun moment, and Dracula dissolving out of sight while in the clutches of Van Helsing and Dr. Stewart was a real surprise. Still, no magic trick could save the production, for the cast just isn’t up to it. For the bows, the theme from SWAN LAKE was played as it had been for the credits of the 1930 film, but Helsing did not hush the audience with his famous last words:
“When you get home tonight and the lights have been turned out and you are afraid to look behind the curtains and you dread to see a face appear at the window...why, just pull yourself together and remember that after all, there are such things.”