By Ron Fassler
The split personality of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde has been entertaining audiences on stage and screen since it was first published as a novella in 1885. There have been more than 120 versions over the years, beginning on both the American and British stages in the late 1800s, on through the earliest days of silent movies, and up through every modern medium imaginable. Its 1931 film version won Fredric March the Academy Award for Best Actor in the dual roles of Jekyll and Hyde, which chilled me to the bone as a small child (the Hyde makeup was truly hideous). I have also seen John Barrymore’s 1920 silent film, in which he transformed himself into Hyde with hardly using any makeup. I’ve also seen Spencer Tracy, Kirk Douglas, Jack Palance and John Malkovich take on the challenge, and of course Jerry Lewis as The Nutty Professor, which depicted (albeit in comic fashion) the horrors of chemically altering a person’s personality. In 1997, the story invariably became a Broadway musical, later committed to DVD in 2006 with David Hasselhoff (Baywatch) singing as the tormented Jekyll.
Now it’s back on stage and being presented as an intimate two-person production, acted and created by Burt Grinstead and Anna Stromberg, who make up its entire cast. Playing the SoHo Playhouse for a limited run, Grinstead portrays Jekyll and Hyde, which leaves Stromberg to portray ever other man and woman in the cast. It is entirely to her credit, that it is always crystal clear as to which character she is playing, but she brings unique comedy chops as well as genuine pathos, whenever either is required. Every time she would come out as Sarah, Jekyll’s one true love, her demeanor and manner of speech were arresting—especially when it would come off her having just played a pompous old man a split-second prior. Both actors provided the driving forces necessary for the play to succeed, although the night I saw it, Grinstead was in a bit of vocal distress (the voice he uses as Hyde clearly taxes him). In spite of that, he still managed to rise to the occasion and projected virility, agility and grace as both Jekyll and Hyde in a highly kinetic performance.
And not only did Grinstead and Stromberg pen the adaptation, but Stromberg directed it (exceedingly well) and Grinstead did the sound design (excellent). No one is credited with the set design, so it’s probably safe to assume it’s both of them. Black, stackable stairs with hidden drawers are all that’s utilized, set against a backdrop that changes colors as quickly as Jekyll’s mood swings. And one more thing about this special collaboration: Grinstead and Stromberg managed to fall in love and get married while putting the show together! Nice to know that there’s a happy ending to this, even if the play itself doesn’t provide one (insert Emoji sad face here).
This Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde offers an exciting and fiendishly clever way to spend eighty minutes, if you are inclined to seeing a new take on this oft-told tale.
Photos: Cooper Bates Photography
Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde is playing at the SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam St., New York, NY 10013, for a limited engagement, now through May 26th.