My father and I each have vivid memories of stage Draculas. As a kid, Dad saw Bela Lugosi on Broadway and was terrified. As an adult, I saw Frank Langella on Broadway and laughed my head off. The Bram Stoker/John L. Balderston/Hamilton Deane script hadn’t changed, but attitudes had. Where Lugosi’s Transylvanian Count inspired nothing but fear, Langella could court chuckles simply by pausing while declining a proffered goblet (“I never drink…wine”) or arching an eyebrow as he kissed the inside of the heroine’s wrist.
He was aided by Edward Gorey’s cartoonish settings and an audience so primed to laugh by decades of B-movie vampires that it sometimes ran away with the show entirely. At the matinee I attended, a woman with a distinctive, whooping giggle let out one shriek so abandoned that it broke up Langella in mid-snarl, forcing the cast to stand around quivering for five minutes while he struggled to compose himself. I remember thinking the then-upcoming 1979 movie version couldn’t possibly be as funny, and, in fact, it didn’t even try, opting for an erotic approach to the story instead. Alas, director John Badham’s decision to sacrifice hilarity for heat worked out badly enough that Langella was rendered all-but-unemployable for the better part of a decade.
Broadway’s Dracula wasn’t the only bloodsucker flitting around theatrical fly-spaces in the late ’70s. Beating the uptown version to Manhattan by a month (and benefiting enormously from the ensuing publicity) was an off-Broadway mounting of Stoker’s tale called The Passion of Dracula, which is currently being revived at the Olney Theater. Because it was written by Bob Hall, an artist for Marvel Comics, and David Richmond, one of several collaborators on a touring version of The Bugs Bunny Revue, the show naturally had jokes. But as the title indicates, the creators meant to concentrate on the love story.
They were evidently more successful than Badham in taking that tack, since the show ran at the Cherry Lane Theater for almost two years. But the mix of comedy and sex they sought proves elusive at the Olney. In keeping with the current rage for spectacle—and at one point in frank imitation of the chief staging gimmick for Broadway’s recent revival of The Inspector Calls—Jim Petosa’s production is more notable for James Kronzer’s towering gothic setting than for either laughs or passion.
Kronzer’s vision of Dr. Cedric Seward’s asylum-cum-study is genuinely impressive, especially as lit by Daniel McLean Wagner, who sends clouds scudding past its clerestory windows and wraps inmates in spooky shadows as they grasp at passers-by from cells perched high on a wraparound balcony. When the designers conspire early in the first act to have a solid-looking stone wall turn briefly magmic and assume the shape of the bloodthirsty Count, it’s clear the occasion’s Halloween party sensibilities are in good hands. The setting is also capable of collapsing prettily for the pointless apocalyptic ending the director has dreamed up.
But the environment is doing way too much of the evening’s work. Neither Dr. Seward (Alan Wade) nor the various folks who, by visiting his home, turn themselves into munchies for his undead neighbor make nearly the impression they should. As Renfield, the live-bug-eating lunatic who’s working his way up to creatures with more juice to them, David Moynihan is suitably antic. But he’s pretty much on his own. Of the noncrazies on the premises, the most amusing is Deb G.Girdler’s briskly commanding German doctor who goes batty for Dracula’s accent. Other supporting performances range from adequate (Carol Monda’s narcoleptic Wilhelmina) to abysmal (John Wylie’s flailing Van Helsing, who remembers his accent about every fifth line).
None of which would matter much if the one role that really has to be right were being played authoritatively. But John Silvers, a slender, too-young actor—he’s long-of-face but not long-of-tooth in any sense of the phrase—merely looks terrific as Dracula. When he’s still shrouded in mist on his first entrance, he’s imposing enough to hang sexual fantasies on. When he tugs at his cape, it swirls with ominousness. But the moment he opens his mouth, he sounds like a vocally unprepossessing college student. He’s Dracu-lite. And so is Olney’s production.