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Dracula

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Dracula
Michel Altieri and Emily Bridges
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Most of Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston’s 1927 play Dracula, adapted from Bram Stoker’s famous 1897 novel, is unsurprisingly concerned with blood: Who needs it? Who has it? Most important: Who doesn’t have it? If by some twist of fate you’re not familiar with the story through any of its myriad incarnations, I won’t spoil those questions too much. But let one thing be made clear as plasma: Paul Alexander’s revival of Deane and Balderston’s version, which just opened at the Little Shubert, is utterly bloodless.

It’s missing a lot more, too, but it’s the absence of a pulsing life force that you most miss as this woebegone production unfolds. Though the play, which Deane wrote for the 1924 London premiere and Balderston revised for Broadway, has lost some luster because of the material’s ubiquity, it should still be involving. The mysteries of what’s caused two women to be exsanguinated but remain alive, the titular Count who just moved in next door, and that pesky rodent flying around all the time endure yet because they whisper to the parts of us that remain uneasy about the unknown or unexplained. When these elements are presented with style, grace, and charisma, as was reportedly the case in the long-running Frank Langella–starred, Edward Gorey–designed 1977 Broadway revival, even know-it-all cynics can be made to tremble again.

The assumption that vampires are themselves interesting enough to carry a carelessly crafted evening is what has torpedoed every musical about the subject for the last decade: Dance of the Vampires; Dracula, the Musical; and Lestat. Writing quality here is not an issue; the overwrought composition still works. But when the designs are haphazard, the direction unfocused, and the actors flabby of speech and personality, as they all are here, it doesn’t stand a chance.

Scenic designer Dana Kenn has attempted to fashion the drawing rooms, bedrooms, and crypts of the story in the manner of a dark-tinted comic book. But the effect is drab and one-dimensional, as if we’re looking at enlarged photos of inflated dollhouse furniture, which makes it difficult to take any prevailing threat seriously. Brian Nason’s lights draw heavy inspiration from the full moon, but convey no sense of shadowy terror in what should be the play’s most uncertain moments. Chris DelVecchio’s sound design relies entirely on classical compositions, piped in overly loud volumes (perhaps to compete with the over-miked actors), lending the evening a useless kind of gravitas. At least Willa Kim’s costumes, if not adventurous, provide a fine approximation of the dusty elegance the story demands.

Alexander does not fare as well. Performing the three-act work with only one intermission is damaging enough; all that prevents it from dissolving the tension in all the wrong places is that there’s no tension to begin with. Everything is played, and staged, at the leisurely swagger of a summer night’s boardwalk stroll, which never convinces you that lives and arteries are truly at stake; you could drive a Batmobile through the gaps between the actors’ line deliveries. Some stateliness is inherent in the script — Deane and Balderston were writing for a different and more patient era, after all — but most plot developments still rely on shock and suspense that they only receive here accidentally. When crosses are brandished as if they’re leftover Christmas candy canes, something is amiss.

As for the actors, only Timothy Jerome gives a moderately successful performance as Seward, the doctor whose daughter is the latest victim of the bizarre bloodletting. Adopting the most consistent English accent and stomping through his role as though something were at stake, he gives the impression of a man who’s deeply confused and concerned about the welfare of the world around him — a place practically no one else acknowledges.

Jake Silbermann is an appealing young hero type, but his languishing romantic character of Jonathan Harker barely extends beyond his starched spine. As his lover, Dr. Seward’s daughter Lucy, Emily Bridges is vacant and disinterested, lacking any concept of passion or spirit on either side of the grave. (In fairness, she graduated from the supporting role of a maid — now blandly played by Katharine Luckinbill — when original star Thora Birch departed during rehearsals, but Bridges’s work is watery given any extenuating circumstances.) John Buffalo Mailer, as Dracula’s unwitting (and unhinged) lackey Renfield, and Rob O’Hare, in the role of the easily excited attendant Butterworth, are shamelessly effective in their pursuit of shallow histrionics rather than recognizable humanity.

Dracula
George Hearn and Timothy Jerome
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

George Hearn, as occult expert Abraham Van Helsing, offers up some delightful professionalism in his portrayal, and might well be ideal in a stronger production. But he always looks adrift, as if he doesn’t believe many of the lofty pronouncements he must spout in tracking down the monster that’s terrorizing the Sewards. He also withers most in Alexander’s loose structure, wandering about vocally and emotionally in ways that spoil Van Helsing’s many dynamic moments — there should be triumph in his occasional victories and a build-up in his assembling the terrifying puzzle he’s facing, and neither is ever in evidence.

Then there’s Michel Altieri as the title character. He’s supposedly a star in Italy, and I’ll assume that when he’s wrapping his mouth around his native tongue, his mincing and guzzling of words is endearing or perhaps even magnetic. But in English (or at least this English), and concerning lines that ruthlessly violate the border between the passable and the full-out melodramatic, his performance is ridiculous, and bereft of any imposing color. Coupled with past-shoulder-length hair a chiseled physique (revealed in a particularly gratuitous way in the second half) that suggest an Abercrombie & Fitch model gone Goth, Altieri is impossible to accept as a Transylvanian transplant whose sole goal in life is to cheat death.

The deficiencies of Altieri’s portrayal is only amplified in the final scenes, which run rampant with undead theory and philosophizing that must be spoken — and understood — with complete clarity to prevent the latent silliness from becoming all-out absurdity. But by that point, the battle is long lost. What present-day society brings to an 82-year-old play can’t be helped; that’s the danger anyone must face when doing an 82-year-old play. But watching the 1931 film, based on this play and starring the title role’s esteemed originator, is engrossing even today because Bela Lugosi was not afraid to reveal what went on beneath the Count’s skin. The more the people involved with this Dracula poke and prod it, the more it deflates, depresses, and quietly screams for the full-body transfusion no one is able or willing to give it.


Dracula
Little Shubert Theatre, 422 West 42nd Street between 9th Avenue and Dwyer Street
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes, including one intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge