With popular culture practically choking on vampires, does Dracula, Bram Stoker’s classic Gothic horror tale, still have anything to say to us?
The novel, still in print after well over a century, surely does. As a model of dense, intense storytelling as well as allegorically, it pleases readers to this day in spite of its distinctly old-fashioned literary style. True horror is timeless.
However, the new Off Broadway revival of Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston’s play, which dates from the 1920s and was successfully revived in 1977 starring Frank Langella, lacks (to use the obvious metaphor) a certain bite.
Leavened by comic relief from two servants (played brightly by Katharine Luckinbill and Rob O’Hare), the story plays out straight. The playwrights wisely narrowed their field, adapting (somewhat freely) the later part of Stoker’s story, set in London. The Count, along with the crates of Transylvania dirt he must sleep in by day, has taken up residence at a crumbling manor house adjacent to the home of Dr. Seward (Timothy Jerome) and his daughter Lucy (an excellent Emily Bridges, daughter of the actor Beau Bridges). Mina Harker, an important character in the novel, is already one of the undead, feeding nightly on the local children, while poor Lucy receives nightly suckings from Dracula himself, who means to transform her into his undead queen.
Undertaking what I can’t help thinking of as the George Hamilton role, the young Italian actor Michel Altieri in his American debut makes a charismatic, half-campy Dracula. With sharp features, long, flowing black hair, and an exotic accent he has the requisite, glittery-eyed, appealingly scary presence.
The production’s big draw, George Hearn, is fine as the Count’s adversary Van Helsing, and it’s nice to see him and hear that famous voice, but it could have been anyone up there—any gracefully aging actor with some gravitas, anyway. This wouldn’t likely be a career-defining role for anyone.
John Buffalo Mailer (the son of Norman Mailer) chews things up as the mental patient Renfield, the vampire’s half-willing minion; manically two-faced in the Gollum-Sméagol tradition, he gets the show’s second-most impressive visual, climbing down a wall upside-down. In a show where the action depends heavily on foggy entrances and dark and stormy nights, the sets, sound, and lighting are key, and the technical crew here easily meets the challenge.
The problems are more basic. To modern ears the earnest, straightforward script is a hard one to make convincing, and director Paul Alexander hasn’t figured out a way to do it. It needs, I suspect, to be played either more funny than this, or less funny; it’s as if no one could make a decision which way to go. If staged and directed better, it might still be a scary play; here, though, it comes across as hokey, neither truly frightening nor endearingly old-fashioned.
What we have, ultimately, is a play from the 1920s that just hasn’t aged well, and a conception that has failed to make the best of it. The best scenes are those in the second half given entirely over to spectacle—the seduction scene (a wordless pas-de-deux between Dracula and Lucy) and the final confrontation in the vampire’s crypt.
Dracula is produced by Bram Stoker’s Dracula LLC, Tony Travis, George and Donna Shipley, Ed Bankole, Megan Barnett, Leslie Evers, Michael
Alden, and Carolyn Bechtel. It plays through March 13 at the Little Shubert Theatre, 442 W. 42 St., New York. Visit the show’s website for tickets.