An Amusement Column
by Harry Haun
A GENDER-BENDING GENRE: Frankenstein, Hamlet and Dracula all come to tragic crash-and-burn conclusions in local productions on the same Sunday Bloody Sunday: March 8. And, notably, they all share the work load with the formerly fairer sex. . . Ruth Negga, the Ethiopian-Irish actress and Oscar contender (for 2016’s Loving), is the latest in a long line of performers who see Hamlet as a distaff assignment. Fanny Furnival was the first to take it on (in 1741), and Sarah Bernhardt was the most famous (in 1899). Negga tested the waters last year at Dublin’s Gate Theater, and the results prompted her to cross the pond to St. Ann’s Warehouse to try it here. . . . The line of female Frankensteins must be much shorter. In fact, Stephanie Berry at CSC may be the only one. The African-American actress who was so good and so at home in the Civil War South of Sugar in Our Wounds has drawn double duty here, playing Creator as well as Creature in Tristan Bernays’ two-hander retelling of Mary Shelley’s gothic story. The other hand mostly strums a guitar and belongs to Rob Morrison, who plays all the other characters the Monster meets in its horror travels. Once the critter is man-made, it grows and matures from guttural sounds and what’s burny-burny to advanced language skills and huge chunks of Shelley ‘s prose. This exercise in minimalist monster-making lasts a generally painless 80 minutes. . . . Dracula, in stark-raving contrast, is a live-wire fire-and-light show that tips the scales at two hours and 20 minutes. Adapter Kate Hamill has translated Bram Stoker into a “feminist revenge fantasy,” wherein a Caucasian male (Matthew Amendt) plays the titled bloodsucker and an African-American female (Jessica Frances Dukes) is Van Helsing, his nemesis who here has survived domestic abuse and become a kind of vampire bounty-hunter. Hamill herself has, self-effacingly, bent the gender a bit to play the fly-eating asylum inmate, Renfield (Hamill spares herself that delicacy). . . . There seems to be only one actor—a male and a Caucasian–who has touched all three of the bases above, and it may surprise you who could go from Hamlet to Dracula to Frankenstein. Versatility had nothing to do with it. Determination did. . . .
When Bela Lugosi began as an actor in Budapest, he sprinted through all the major Shakespearean roles. His Hamlet—though his specialty—was from Hungary and for Hungary. He never did it here because his thick accent did battle with The Bard. That liability, however, proved an asset, passing plausibly for Transylvanian when his most famous role wafted his way. He introduced his Count Dracula on Broadway in 1927, did it for 261 performances and toured extensively with it all over the U.S. . . . At tour’s end, Lugosi stayed in California and hovered over Universal since the studio had purchased the screen rights to Dracula. Instead, they offered him a different Monster—the man-made one in Frankenstein. Because he took an enormous amount of delusional pride in his voice, he was incensed and insulted by the offer, turning it emphatically down rather than waste his “instrument” on grunts and growls. The part fell by default to a soft-spoken, cultivated Brit. It was the 13th of 14 films that Boris Karloff made in 1931, and it proved to be his career-maker. . . .Meanwhile, director Todd Browning delayed Dracula’s filming till a month after the death of his first choice, Lon Chaney—then pitched the part to Paul Muni, Joseph Schildkraut, Victor Jory and Chester Morris before resigning himself to Lugosi. The actor got just $35,000 for seven weeks’ work—a small price to pay for his role-of-a-lifetime. He did many vampires and villains in his career, but he only played Dracula one more time—for his last “A” film, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. . . .There’s that word again. Lugosi realized he may have been a bit rash in rejecting the Monster role and lobbied for it when Karloff bailed after Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein. All that got him was a subsidiary role in Son of Frankenstein and The Ghost of Frankenstein): Ygor, a blacksmith with broken neck from a botched hanging (yes, he nursed a grudge against the townfolks who strung him up). . . .The third time was the charm. At last, he was allowed to get in full Monster drag for Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). The reason? Lon Chaney Jr., who filled Karloff shoes for The Ghost of Frankenstein, was otherwise engaged as Wolf Man.
THE GREEN SCENE: Unabashed crooner Mark William, who has already collected the Broadway World Award for Best Male Debut and is trying to second that motion with a MAC Award to the same effect, will display his musical wares for your consideration March 6 at 7 p.m. in The Green Room 42. He’s a young singer with an old sensibility. . . At the same time, in the same place, on March 11, Jamie deRoy is saluting the 35-year-old Primary Stages (where she often produces) with a benefit concert. She’s rallied some name-brand friends to participate—like Tyne Daly, Julie Halston, Howard McGillin, Jennifer Mudge, Adriane Lenox and Chesney Snow.
QUICK-CHANGE ARTISTS: Some fascinating finite-acting can be on found on West 47th Street in neighboring Broadway houses these days—but you’d better hurry. . . .Laura Linney’s extraordinary and undoubtedly exhausting dual performance in My Name Is Lucy Barton is coming mercifully to an end at the Friedman Feb. 29 and will thereafter only exist as a Penguin Random House Audiobook (which will be a very different animal). Rona Munro’s monologue adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s novel has Linney awakening after an operation and finding her mother at the foot of her bed. What follows allows the actress to run an impressive “My mother! My daughter! My mother! My daughter!” gamut—without ever leaving the stage. . . .Next door at the Barrymore, until March 15, are two hat-trick performances where an actor makes a razor-swift transition from one character to another. Paul Hilton, who, as a pair of aging gays, represents the heart and head of Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance, achieves this simply and swiftly by removing his spectacles and refining his accent from Brit to Yank. One minute he’s novelist E. M. Forster (Howards End, A Room with a View, Maurice); the next, he’s the dying lover of a rich Republican. . . .Samuel H. Levine’s duo is an actor-on-the-rise who arrives in all his arrogance, and a street hustler who ekes out a miserable living. One has a confident gait, the other an almost apologetic slump. There is one remarkable scene when these two collide outside the actor’s theater and converse. Levine leaves no doubt who’s talking. . . .The Inheritance is a 6½-hour epic with a three-way lead: Kyle Soller, Andrew Burnap and Levine. That fact’s apt to get lost or mangled when time comes to divvy up awards. In London where the play premiered, only Soller made the Olivier race for Best Actor—and he won, over another three-way lead that was nominated (Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles). These three will be beginning a run here in The Lehman Trilogy beginning March 7 at the Nederlander. . . .It looks like there is going to be a lively—and, perhaps, crowded–contest ahead. . . .
FINE PRINT (MIGHTY FINE): The stars of Mack & Mabel—Douglas Sills and Alexandra Socha—came in last in the alphabetical cast-listing on Playbill’s cover page, but they behaved like Stars—perfect casting! perfect chemistry!—and made this one of the most emotionally satisfying musicals in the history of Encores! The show itself was less than perfect, but you could sense the audience rooting for it. . . Even Bernadette Peters, the Mabel of 1974, was drawn to it Saturday night . . . The run ended the next night—on the 90th anniversary of Mabel Norman’s death. . . .
BY ANY OTHER NAME: The Medea that Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale are putting out there at BAM through March 8 is pulling in some strangers to Euripides. Claims co-star Dylan Baker: “You’d be amazed how many people we have to tell we’re not doing Tyler Perry’s Farewell Medea Tour!” . . . After Medea, Cannavale gets his shot at tragedy when he and Byrne do a one-night-only benefit reading of A View From the Bridge for The Acting Company March 23. They’re warming up for a longer run (Dec. 8-Jan. 16) in Byrne’s hometown of Sydney, Australia. . . .Another Australian actress, Zoe Caldwell, who died last week, won one of her four Tonys in 1982 giving Medea full Greek-tragedy due. The role worked similar award-winning wonders for Diana Rigg in 1994 and yet another Aussie, Judith Anderson, in 1948. Fiona Shaw had to settle for just a Tony nomination as 2003’s Medea. . . .Anderson earned her last Tony nomination—her first as Featured Actress rather than as The Main Attraction—playing Nurse to Caldwell’s Medea. She was considerably less blessed with her Nurse, Hermione Baddeley. The story goes that whenever Anderson was down front and her back was turned, Baddeley was bad, fussing and fidgeting and stealing focus from the star. A livid Anderson laid down the law to the stage manager: “Tell her she is to stay absolutely still, as still as a stone. She is not to move her arms or any parts of her body. She is not to blink. She is not to breath. She is not to do anything while I’m on stage talking. Is that clear?” He dutifully delivered the message to Baddeley and then started dodging Anderson as best he could. Eventually, she collared him right before she was to hit the stage in one of her furies. “Did you tell her?” she asked him shrilly. “Is she going to do it? What did she say?” The stage manager dragged out his response to the last possible moment and then blurted out, “She said, ‘Go f__k yourself.’ You’re on!”