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The Frankenstein Summer

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Don't bother looking to the program to determine when The Frankenstein Summer takes place; despite what's printed there, 1816 seems considerably early. In dress and name, the literary giants at the center of Catherine Bush's play at the Phil Bosakowski Theatre might be rooted in the early 19th century, but in word and manner they're as modern as it comes.

Yes, Bush's play is English Literature 101 as imagined by Aaron Spelling and broadcast weekly on Fox. To those who might be interested in a play about Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, and even John Polidori but desire strict fidelity to the conventions of language and attitude of the period, don't even bother with The Frankenstein Summer. For those a bit more adventurous, this is a surprisingly agile - if facile - comedy.

It should be noted, though, that it's one based on actual events: In one form or another, this group of people did convene in a Geneva villa in 1816, and hold a horror fiction contest during which Polidori developed the first widely known vampire story and Mary Shelley first conceived the basis for the story that would eventually become Frankenstein. But even working from historical fact allows Bush quite a bit of dramatic license, and she uses it freely in spinning this tangled tale of love, jealousy, and authorship.

Polidori, for instance, as played by Brendan McMahon, is the tag-along buffoon no one likes yet everyone puts up with; he's continually picked on by the more popular men, Byron (Marc Geller) and especially Shelley (Brad Malow), who's taken to calling him Polidolly. Both Byron's mistress Claire Clairmont (Tracey Gilbert) and Shelley's (Mary, played by Abby Royle) have their own social aspirations that may or may not be fulfilled by the men with whom they're currently involved. Just about everyone is keeping at least one secret from everyone else, and a series of quarrels, brawls, gossip sessions, and farcical misunderstandings must ensue before everyone ends up with the proper lover and story idea.

The characters are sketched along familiar lines - Byron's the brooding genius, Shelley's the handsome bully, Claire's the dim-witted woman, Mary possesses an inquisitive literary mind - but the interplay between them all is often highly amusing, even when (or perhaps especially when) they're at their most sophomoric. Reducing some of the English language's greatest writers to over-intellectual, over-sexed college kids is an intriguing gamble that, for Bush and director Geller, mostly pays off and results in a frothy, funny, and fiercely inconsequential play.

One suspects that Bush wanted some deeper meaning to come through, likely with regard to the changing role of women in the world of fiction (among other plot points, the ghost-story contest is Claire's idea), but this comes across in only occasional and superficial ways. Similarly, much of the acting doesn't deepen Bush's initial concept or add many new colors to it: caricaturish performances - particularly from McMahon and Gilbert - mixing with undercooked understatement from the likes of Geller and Malow generally prevent that. Royle is the most effective of the principals, though Bill Roulet clocks in with a few character-driven laughs from Byron's doddering Butler, Fletcher.

But most of the solid, anchoring work is done by set designer Aaron Mastin, whose grey drawing room set is quite striking, and Dennis Ballard, whose crisp costumes are locked in the play's purported period. Despite this, and constant references to Wordsworth, this play would feel equally at home in Southern California, filled with characters from the UCLA poetry club; with the possible exception of a few messy details of Byron's personal life, little about the characters' personal or professional lives would have to change much.

That's Bush's point: However we deify our great creative figures, they are or were, beneath it all, ordinary people with the same thoughts, desires, and petty problems we all have. That message, if few others, comes through loud and clear in The Frankenstein Summer, which is refreshingly entertaining, if several stops short of universal.

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Red Light District
The Frankenstein Summer
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes with one intermission
Phil Bosakowski Theatre, 354 West 45th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Schedule and Tickets: 212.352.3101