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The Alley's Dracula: No One Rises Above the Material

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The set-up: Anemic. 1. Of, pertaining to, or afflicted with anemia; bloodless, lifeless, pale. 2. The Alley's Dracula.

The execution: In 1977, the hottest ticket on Broadway was the revival of John Balderston and Hamilton Deane's 1927 adaptation of Bram Stoker's Victorian horror classic Dracula (1897). With its black and white, pen and ink design by Edward Gorey, a celebrated eccentric artist whose macabre and comic cartoons where as lauded as those by Charles Addams of "Addams Family" fame, the play boasted another revelation: Frank Langella as the 500-year-old Transylvanian count. Brought up only knowing Bela Lugosi's signature portrayal from Tod Browning's movie adaptation - continental, soignee, a bit of a lounge lizard - here was a vibrant, sexy bloodsucker with Vegas moves and Clairol hair. Who wouldn't fall under his spell? Langella (and Gorey) made that show succeed, for truth be told, the play is a creaky chestnut, an outright clunker that does Stoker no good at all.

Stoker's shockingly effective novel, full of dread and menace, is, what English majors like to say, epistolary. That is, told through letters, diary entries, a few newspaper clippings, and dictated on a "phonograph," that wax cylinder precursor to the dictaphone, a.k.a. the tape recorder. This literary technique adds another layer to the story's sense of place and character, giving the novel a "you are there" quality. The facts must be true, why would anyone lie to a diary? From the start, when innocent young English lawyer Jonathan Harker journeys into the wilds of Romania's Carpathian Mountains to finalize the sale of London property for the creepy Count Dracula, we the reader, as another witness, are immediately drawn into this unbelievable tale of the "un-dead."

The novel is thick with melodramatic incident and Victorian sentiment, larded throughout with superstition, faith, and the most wicked sorcery imaginable. An added pleasure is the character of Mina, Jonathan's betrothed, who's the epitome of the "modern woman," the match of any of the male characters in strength, intelligence, grit, and grace. She nearly succumbs to Dracula's wiles not because he has taken her blood, but because she has been forced to drink his. The contamination almost does her in. The seduction scene is the most erotic and chilling scene in the book, no doubt causing proper Victorian ladies to swoon, shudder, and, maybe, dream.

The play has none of this. Deane wrote his version in 1924, and Balderston rewrote Deane for the Broadway production. It remains a drawing room drama, full of exposition that is hopelessly compressed and not fully satisfying. The fragrant backstory of Harker's grisly time in Transylvania is dropped entirely, characters are merged into less complementary ones or totally excised, relationships are mangled, and Mina's modern woman has morphed into Lucy, a swooning ingenue, the damsel in distress. She is there, it seems, to be a glamorous appendage. Elizabeth Bunch, in her sleek bias-cut bat wing dress and luminous platinum hair, drapes herself decorously over the handsome furniture like Jean Harlow's stand-in.

Thankfully Stoker's psychotic Renfield (Jeremy Webb), the mental patient of Dr. Seward (Jeffrey Bean) who dines on flies and spiders, imbibing their life force, makes memorable appearances throughout to give this dinosaur of a play a needed kick of comic strangeness. Of course, every time he escapes his cell, he casually walks into Seward's living room. In his delusion, he has obviously forgotten where the front door to freedom lies. Webb, over the top, is the only life in this moribund production, happily demented like Cesar Romero's Riddler.

Since the Alley opted to revive this revival, using the Gorey designs and the notion of a young, sexy Count, who else in their roster of actors would be more appropriate than Jay Sullivan? (An incandescent John Merrick in The Elephant Man; a spiritual C.S. Lewis in Freud's Last Session; the goofiest of airheads, Spike, in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.) Perfect, no? No. As charismatic onstage as any actor, he is woefully miscast. Unlike Stoker's sharp-toothed vampire, Sullivan has no fangs. Although he swirls a cape like Manolete and fills out Tricia Barsamian's Gorey-esque evening wear handsomely, there's no menace, no great evil, no chill in the air. And no sexy frisson whatsoever.

His faux English accent bears no trace of his middle Europe lineage; he's but a stagedoor johnny. He makes one entrance, though, that chills. From behind the sofa where Lucy lies languidly, one hand claws over, then the other. He has prowled from nowhere, an eerie touch indeed. For one exit, he disappears in a rush of fog and explosion like the Wicked Witch of the West. But a complete portrayal is not made of entrances and exits. His character has no character. Even Dracula's great line, when he hears the distant howling of the London dogs (poached from Stoker's Transylvanian scene where the wolves are baying), "Listen to them - the children of the night. What music they make!" falls with a thud. No shiver up our spine.

Sullivan's not alone in not doing much with very little. None of the cast, with the exception of Webb's loopy Renfield, illuminates. They bluster (James Black as intrepid Van Helsing, vampire hunter extraordinaire); do what they can (Jeffrey Bean, as befuddled Dr. Seward); add minor touches (Todd Waite, as asylum attendant Martin, who towers menacingly over everyone, but can't keep Renfield in his cell); or they just seem dazed and confused (Chris Hutchison, as Harker; Melissa Pritchett, as extraneous maid Wells, a character who flip flops between suspicion and willing accomplice).

But when interest lags, there's "scenic coordinator" Hugh Landwehr's recension of Gorey to peruse with admiration. How many bats can you find hidden in the wallpaper, the sconces, the drapes, on the floor, in the costumes, on the program cover? Marvel at the range of colors to be had in a palette rendered only in black, white, and gray: platinum, cream, pearl, silver, dove, stone, raven, ink. The shades go on and on. Meanwhile, so does the play. The production, directed by Alley Artistic Director Gregory Boyd, meanders, neither camp nor played true. Offset by the Alley's patented gloss, there's only so much worth in a highly polished cubic zirconium.

The verdict: Perhaps it's Gorey's famous picturebook design that keeps us from full involvement. Sketched with wit and dark whimsy, the look strands the play in a precocious child's neverland, whereas Stoker's adapters want us frightened and always looking over our shoulder. This pen and ink world (one splash of red per scene), clever and wondrous to behold, doesn't convey Stoker's inherent evil. It limits it, chuckles at it. The modest antique play can't compete with modern de-construction.

If you want a more satisfying adaptation of the original play, download the Lugosi classic. Yes, it's talky in the extreme and has its own clunky technique, but Hollywood knew best to add the Transylvania scenes, and their picturesque gothic oddness are quite disquieting and oh, so eerie. Greeting Harker, Lugosi turns and walks up the immense, dust-encrusted staircase. He approaches a gigantic spiderweb across the stairs. Harker watches. Cut back to Dracula, walking on the other side. The web is untorn. Now, that's Stoker, via Hollywood. If only Deane and Balderston had thought of that! Or the Alley.

Dracula continues through November 2 at Lyndall Finley Wortham Theatre, University of Houston, 4116 Elgin. Entrance 16 off Cullen Boulevard. Purchase tickets online at alleytheatre.org/uh or call 713-220-5700. $26-$99.

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