By Samuel L. Leiter
It must have seemed a pretty good promotional idea, on paper, at any rate. Two plays, titled Dracula and Frankenstein, playing in rotating repertory at the Classic Stage Company, one of New York’s best-known Off-Broadway theaters. No character names from the crypt of Gothic horror fiction have more immediate recognition value than Dracula and Frankenstein.
The endless obsession with them is obvious from the continuing stream of books, plays, and movies based on the originals. Show-score.com, in fact, reveals that, since 2016 alone, New York has seen four Dracula shows, with five listed for Frankenstein, a list that excludes a sixth, Dr. Frankenstein, which I saw last fall.
Dear boys and ghouls, please note that, for all the hair-raising promises of those titles, you’re more likely to be chilled by the venue’s lowered thermostat (a young woman in the first row for one play had her coat covering her nose) than by Kate Hamill’s bloodless, feminist take on Dracula (unless red sequins make you squirm), reviewed here last week, or Tristan Bernays’s minimalist, two-actor version of Frankenstein, based on Mary Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.
Bernays’s play, directed by Timothy Douglas, seems more concerned with finding just how little is necessary to tell Shelley’s weirdly compelling story than with actually telling the story, whose metaphorical implications have been hashed over by many critics.
The whittled-down, 80-minute script—played in the three-quarters round on John Doyle’s thrust platform, with only a large, rolling table, a stool, and a few essential props—eliminates much of Shelley’s tale to focus on the relationship between the Creature and his creator, Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Shelley’s frame story, set in the North Pole, is gone (along with so much else), although the action concludes in that frozen zone.
Using a semi-story-theatre style, the tale is narrated by the Creature, who’s played by a middle-aged African-American actress, Stephanie Berry, wearing a wool watch cap and either a white lab coat-like garment or a black overcoat (costumes by Toni-Leslie James). These coats are apparently meant to help us know who she’s playing at any one time, the Creature or Frankenstein, but the results are inconsistent.
Berry brings a degree of charismatic presence to her work but her readings of the lush, poetic prose and—once the Creature has gained speech and knowledge—her physical presence do little to discriminate one role from the other.
While the play may be trying to gain sympathy for the Creature by emphasizing its humanness and suggesting that its carefully described, horrific physicality (a metaphor for “otherness”?) shouldn’t be held against it, seeing an everyday-looking woman as the eight-foot-tall monster does nothing to increase the fright quotient. Let’s face it: why do you go to Frankenstein? For its social messages, its creative artiness, or to have the bejesus scared out of you?
Further blurring the narrative and diminishing its tension is the Chorus, played by the slender, red-bearded Rob Morrison, looking, in his ripped jeans, like a downtown hipster. He heightens the atmosphere by playing music on one of several stringed instruments (mainly an electric guitar), written by Morrison himself. He often does this while simultaneously assuming different characters, such as a blind peasant; Frankenstein’s fiancé, Elizabeth; or, quite confusingly, given that the Creature also plays him, Frankenstein himself.
Sound designer Leon Rothenberg contributes helpful prerecorded voices and multiple sound effects, and Adam Honoré’s moody lighting provides about the only hints of spookiness on view.
Frankenstein never recovers from the lassitude of an early sequence, when the Creature teaches itself to move and speak. Nor does it benefit from a totally unnecessary bit of audience participation, which only helps to demonstrate just how closely this inert production resembles the raw materials on which Dr. Frankenstein exercises his scientific powers. Neither the play’s writer nor director are able, like the good doctor, to bring inanimate material to life.
Those seeking Frankensteinien frissons will have to return to Shelley’s novel or switch on James Whale’s 1931 much more unnerving film version. The latter, for all its datedness, offers Boris Karloff as a far less articulate but hugely more engaging monster than the one mashed here.
Frankenstein. Through March 8 at Classic Stage Company (136 East 13th Street, between Third and Fourth Avenues). www.classicstage.org
Photos: Joan Marcus