Victoria's Public

We make too much, nowadays, of Victorian repression. Like us, the Victorians loved crime and sexual scandal; to study the newspaper reports of famous cases is to be startled, quite often, by the explicitness of the details this ''repressed'' society was willing to print. In the theater, we associate the era with the impassive subtleties of high comedy, but the Victorian theatergoer's diet was considerably more varied, mingling the Pineros and Wildes with panto, music hall, farce, melodrama, high drama, and opera both comic and grand. A quarter-century of scholarship has brought a lot of this ''lower'' theater at least to printed light; someday the stage may get to it as well.

Naturally, the artist most in advance of the tide was the late Charles Ludlam, who wrote The Mystery of Irma Vep in 1984, as an economical romp for himself and his partner, Everett Quinton. Quinton has now revived the piece with himself in the roles created by Ludlam, the young actor Stephen DeRosa in the roles Quinton created, and professionally lavish designs by the Tony Award­winning trio of John Lee Beatty, William Ivey Long, and Paul Gallo --a notion that Ludlam would have found ferociously amusing. In design as in playwriting, his vision was based on the junk-sculpture transmutation of discarded objects, the stage melodrama and its horror-movie avatar being just such things. The three designers have done a spectacular job--Ivey Long's dresses for Lady Enid, the heroine, win rounds of applause, while Beatty's Egyptian sarcophagus practically stops the show--but to see them at work on this material is exactly as funny as it would be to screen Revenge of the Wolfman and find in its credits the line ''Gowns by Dior.''

Irma Vep is subtitled ''a penny dreadful,'' Victorian slang for the cheap-paper horror or crime stories that were the favorite reading material of preadolescent boys. A sort of burlesque omnibus, the play contains all the major motifs that horror scribblers have been handing down since The Mysteries of Udolpho: It has a haunted house, a secret panel, the unsolved murder of a child, the lurking presence of a dead first wife, a portrait that bleeds, a vampire, a werewolf, a mummy that reanimates, a mysterious captive, and--for comic relief from the comic piling-up of horrors--a lecherous gamekeeper, complete with wooden leg, and an outspokenly flirtatious parlormaid.

Dana Ivey (left) and Roger Rees in The Uneasy Chair: bickering their way into senility
Joan Marcus
Dana Ivey (left) and Roger Rees in The Uneasy Chair: bickering their way into senility

Details

The Mystery of Irma Vep
By Charles Ludlam
Westside Theatre
407 West 43rd Street
239-6200

The Uneasy Chair
By Evan Smith
Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street
279-4200

Ludlam brought unity to this sensationalist ragbag with two daring jokes. The simple one is that all the roles are played by two actors, making Irma Vep a tribute to the performers' versatility and the infinite benevolence of the goddess Velcro. The many ingenious ways in which characters are hustled offstage whenever a new arrival is imminent make up a large part of the play's charm, especially when combined with the script's open admission of the trick. The climax, inevitably, is a struggle to the death in which one actor plays both roles.

Ludlam's subtler second joke was to apply his customary writing technique--collage--in ways that challenge any assumptions we might have about ''high'' and ''low'' drama. The English setting calls up lines from Shakespeare as well as Bram Stoker; the dead wife and son evoke not only werewolf kitsch and Daphne du Maurier, but bursts of Ibsen's Rosmersholm and Little Eyolf. This joke, too, has a climax, in the form of a last-scene ''rational'' explanation that's not only impossible in itself, but leaves virtually everything unexplained. The horrors remain pure, a nightmarish joke any two people can go on frightening each other with forever. Only literature is made to get down off its haughty pedestal and mingle.

Not the deepest or most innovatively disturbing of Ludlam's plays,Irma Vep is the most perfect expression of his approach to theater: a play that simultaneously provokes terror, laughter, and a grotesque mockery of all gender, literary, and spatial boundaries. It's impossible to imagine the audience that wouldn't enjoy it, from kids off the street to professors of literature, and not excluding your aunt from Iowa, since neither sex nor splatter gets beyond carefully prim Victorian bounds, though every sort of outrage is adumbrated.

Having played the original production throughout its long run, Quinton knows where all the work's surprises and jokes lie hidden, and the directorial timing with which he springs them here is impeccable. His acting, too, is strong and inventive, though it must be firmly stated that Ludlam was irreplaceable, particularly as Lady Enid. DeRosa's mad-eyed parlormaid is excellent, though his Lord Edgar, blandly contemporary, is no match for Quinton's clench-jawed doughtiness. The night I was there, Lord Edgar slipped and fell, but this was not the problem, since he instantly showed his alertness in a volley of ad libs. The best of Irma Vep's smaller pleasures is the way its Victorian context encourages a free rapport with the audience, which is of the essence of theater. And its biggest joke, perhaps, is that no small setback to an actor can stop the brilliantly oiled machine from taking, like destiny, its inevitable course.

EVAN SMITH'SThe Uneasy Chair is a different kind of mock-Victorian play, one in which the author is trying to say something about modern mores and something about 19th-century manners at the same time. Or maybe vice versa, since Smith clearly revels in Victorian archness, fastidiousness, and distance; his grasp of the verbal style involved is complete and immaculate. What seems hazier is his sense of subject. A shabby-genteel spinster who lets rooms, and her principal tenant, a retired army officer of equally modest means, are comfortable together but feel no sexual attraction. His nephew and her niece, both of no means at all, are intensely attracted to each other but devoid of domestic feelings. Both couples marry, after a great deal of backing and filling, and, in the older couple's case, the public notoriety of a breach of promise suit. The younger pair, after a thoroughly satisfying honeymoon, splits up, each happily going his or her own way. The older pair stay bickeringly together into senility.

It's hard to tell what Smith means us to draw from this tale, beyond the obvious--and rather Victorian--morals: Sex isn't what makes marriages last; taste pleasures now or miss them ever after; etc. Since, especially with the older couple, we only see those brittle expressions of distance, the result is that marriage seems to have no validity at all. Which leaves a play all about the intricacies of marriage with a centerless feeling.

Or would, except that The Uneasy Chair is a comedy, and its two principal roles are played by Dana Ivey and Roger Rees. Do you think comedy of purest gold can't be spun from Smith's mildly amusing wisps of straw? Say ''Rumpelstiltskin'' three times fast, and then picture Dana Ivey, in full Victorian garb, splayed across a couch in an attitude of sexual willingness. If you aren't laughing yet, or don't know who Dana Ivey is, you probably don't deserve to live in New York; either turn your apartment over to some young artist at a reasonable rent, or go see The Uneasy Chair. You can surely get tickets; the snobs who think theater only means playwriting must have given theirs back by now. But the theater is made up of actors; if they all had the wit and precision of Dana Ivey, we might call this a civilized country.

I haven't said anything about Roger Rees. But the husband always gets the worst of it in these cases, and Rees knows that: His great moment comes when, having married, he finds himself incapable of pronouncing his own name if preceded by ''Mrs.'' The string of nonsense syllables that he stammers instead is gold out of straw again. And he manages, while stammering them, to make his eyes roll in two directions at once. Ivey is most of the show, but you had better keep a close watch on Rees too. The supporting cast is negligible, but not painful, and the director, Richard Cottrell, has filled in the script's blank spots judiciously, especially in his choice of music: The fadeout is Joan Morris warbling ''Love's Old Sweet Song,'' one of the world's more perfect recordings.

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