Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Theater Review: “Dracula, A Comedy of Terrors” is Goofy Fun, While “Bite Me” and “Job” are Intriguing Two-Character Plays That Are More Than What They Present

Dracula, A Comedy of Terror (c) Matthew Murphy

Theater: Dracula, A Comedy of Terrors 
At New World Stages 

Imagine if playwrights Charles Busch and Paul Rudnick had a baby and it hosted a Halloween costume party, you would most likely get Dracula, A Comedy of Terrors, a funny, innocuous trifle of a retelling of the overly mined Bram Stoker novel. This year alone had two Dracula films: one was a mainly faithful horror film, The Voyage of the Demeter, while the other was a pretty bloody Nicholas Cage comedy focusing on his much put-upon assistant, Redfield. Both are also touched on in Gordon Greenberg and Steve Rosen’s play, but if a faithful adaptation is what you’re after, you’re biting up the wrong neck. The productions of Dracula on stage has never really succeeded, becoming more infamous than enjoyable (Dance of the Vampire, Dracula, the Musical, Lestat), and parodies are rather fruitless affairs since every last drop of humorous blood has already been drained from the well. So, color me surprised with the “let’s put on a show,” can-do version held more laughs and ingenuity than I ever expected. We start in Transylvania, in which our titular Count (James Daly, more petulant Fire Island party boy than Bela Lugosi) is selling his mansion to move to America, thanks to the efforts of ambitious realtor Jonathan Harker (an appropriately eager Andrew Keenan-Bolger). Once on this side of the ocean, Dracula begins to sate his hunger with the locals, but he is most captivated by Harker’s plucky and beautifully necked fiancé Lucy (the fetching and no-nonsense Jordan Boatman). Fearing the worst when Lucy’s sister is suddenly stricken with anemia, their father, Dr. Wallace Westfeldt (Ellen Harvey), hires the supernaturally inclined Dr. Van Helsing who, in Arnie Burton’s hysterical interpretation, is the even less fetching German sister of Roald Dahl’s Miss Trunchbull. In fact, it is the acting that is the highlight of this production (the energetic cast plays many secondary characters), with Burton and Harvey providing chameleon turns, sometimes in the same scene, being firsts among equals. Then there’s the whole gay vibe presentation that highlights what is already there in the text. Dracula is of course an equal opportunity predator, and the campy joke meter is certainly in the red here. While this is about as scary as a ride through Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, it is certainly fun, alternative fare for the Spooky Season. 

Bite Me (c) Carol Rosegg

Bite Me 
At the WP Theater 

In the same season that opened a Dracula comedy, it would seem that a play entitled Bite Me might be of the same genre. But, no, the title, even though (as far as I can tell) is never uttered, refers more to the colloquial American put-down, as Eliana Pipes’s enjoyable but familiar new play is set in a suburban high school (circa 2004) where newly transplanted Melody (Malika Samuel), being the only black student, is hiding out in a basement storeroom. But her little corner of solitude is soon broken by the appearance of another social outsider, Nathan (David Garelik), who has been storing the things he steals from the classmates he hates along with the usual rebellious knick knacks like alcohol and cigarettes. The two do know each other as Nathan pays Melody to do his homework, but when they decide to share this room for their own affairs, they start to get to know each other, including maybe a little flirting by Melody, even though her rebel without a cause crush already has a girlfriend. Act One ends with their friendship in crisis, but considering that Act Two takes a jump into the future, I think in hindsight the pivotal moment should be a bigger breaking point of their relationship than it is. Still, it does break the two up so badly that they stop speaking to each other, and the rest of the play is their first reunion and memories of that time in their lives. I’ve seen my fair share of the countless TV shows and movies with a high school setting in recent years, and while “Bite Me” doesn’t really tackle new themes, Pipes’ dialogue is easygoing and fresh, and the performances by both Samuel and Garelik capture nuances to their characters that occasionally surprises. Considering the play is performed without an intermission, the actors’ quick switch to their characters’ time jump selves is realistically drawn, with an important assist by the director Rebecca Martínez’s sensitive and guiding hand. Despite some lapse in logic (really, they never spoke to each other, ever?) Bite Me is an entertaining play with an assured voice by Eliana Pipes. 

Job (c) Emilio Madrid

Theater: Job 
At Soho Playhouse 

My simile-dar always goes up when a character or play is named Alice or Job. Which of these characters in Max Wolf Friedlich’s tense and enjoyable Job, I ask myself will be carrying the weight of the Biblical Job, who is tested by God with shocking burdens all in the name of faith? The play starts with a banger of an image (no spoilers here) before we get to the action of the play, in which Jane (Sydney Lemmon) is being evaluated by therapist Loyd (Peter Friedman) in order for her to get her job back after a cellphone video of her complete meltdown goes viral. The tension is ramped up by director Michael Herwitz, by having odd flashes of surreal imagery punctuating the mostly naturalistic presentation. Both actors have appeared on HBO’s Succession, and a lot of the audience feels very generous toward them. This unfortunately creates an imbalance to the aim of the play, which should feel uneasy and disquieting, but, at least at my performance, is taken mostly as a comedy, despite all the warning signs of menace. No fault of the actors, including the extremely antsy Lemmon, who earns the majority of the laughs, even when it should be more of a nervous laugh rather than a ha-ha one. Friedman as the crisis therapist is the straight man to all this, and it’s his assessment of the fraught situation caused by Jane and her baggage that is full of the hesitation and caution the audience should also have. So, when the Biblical Job narrative arrives, the audience finally realizes the severity of the play’s themes and it may feel like quite the shock. But, even after laughing for the first hour, they did absorb the twist and got much of the point, so, who am I to say how you should enjoy the play. Still, I felt the subtle manipulations Friedlich parsed out with the jokes to the audience should be explored more head on and not just theoretically. Job has just been extended and will play until the end of October, a surprise hit play where Off-Broadway has had quite the drought. The play’s poster has both characters being playfully impaled by small office supplies, but unlike the TV series Severance, the play is less about workplace drama than it is about moral responsibility.

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