By JOHN DeMERS
For once, in the current Alley Theatre production of the “original vampire play” Dracula, the set is attracting more attention than the actors. For one thing, it’s a re-creation of the eye-popping design by artist Edward Gorey for a Broadway production in the 1970s. And for another, it’s the first Alley Theatre set in memory that’s not actually in the Alley Theatre.
Dracula opens the season for a company whose downtown space is being updated and renovated top to bottom, and thus is performing in the Wortham Theatre at the University of Houston. The Wortham is somewhat smaller than the larger of the Alley’s two spaces downtown, but comfortable and state-of-the-art in any way an audience might want. It will be hard to break the habit of heading for the Alley downtown. Beyond that pain, however, there is considerable gain. When the Alley returns, it will surely have been worth the wait.
As reinvented on Broadway, first for Frank Langella (making him a star) and later by Raul Julia, Dracula is a fun romp through the vampire legend. Based on Bram Stoker’s surprisingly frightening epistolary novel, the first go-round by Hamilton Deane and the rewrite a few years later by John L. Balderston point clearly toward all the ghosts of Count Draculas past. Indeed, it was Balderston’s occasionally tongue-in-cheek script that became a stage hit and eventually a 1930s Hollywood breakthrough for an unknown Hungarian actor named Bela Lugosi. By the 1970s, and therefore by today in spades, the tongue-in-cheek elements of the narrative have taken on even greater prominence – not least in the Alley’s revisionist hands, which tend to camp up any play older than day-before-yesterday.
As with all previous versions, of the original Dracula if not always its many Hollywood spinoffs, there is a core of horror that catches us by the throat despite the laughter. This is helped along by the black-and-white Gorey designs, which had apparently been lost, forcing scenic coordinator Hugh Landwehr on a detective journey equal to searching out the Count’s six boxes of Transylvanian soil in which he gets a good day’s sleep. The sets are bizarre and evocative, thus setting the audience off-kilter immediately, ready for strange doings in the country home of an “alienist” (early psychiatrist) named Dr. Seward and his lovely daughter Lucy.
As directed by Gregory Boyd, the cast includes many of the Alley’s usual suspects, including Jeffrey Bean as Dr. Seward, James Black as Van Helsing, the Dutch scientist who is (in all things Dracula) the first to figure out what’s going on and how to fight back, and Elizabeth Bunch as Lucy. Chris Hutchison labors to make John Harker less of a whiny, spoiled brat – but maybe that’s just who Harker is. Fine, mostly comic twists are served up by Melissa Pritchett as Lucy’s lady in waiting, Todd Waite as a kind of guard around Seward’s sanitarium and, especially, Jeremy Webb as the bug-eating Renfield, always the play’s most over-the-top character.
Jay Sullivan provides a different but ultimately satisfying take on Dracula himself. Sidestepping any major effort at the now-cliché Transylvanian accent, he becomes “merely” an eerie, handsome and temptingly exotic man-about-castle who would, with or without vampire powers, lure an overprotected Lucy away from her over-entitled Harker to be his undying (and undyingly sexual) bride. Sullivan gives up, as it were, the wilder, wink-wink comic extremes of the role right along with the wilder, blood-snarling scary extremes. He gives us a Count who is that oddest of oddities – restrained. Still, his is a Dracula who does register as the essence of quiet, timeless evil, essentially the face that launched a thousand fangs.