Creature Comforts

Scripts belong to genres—they can't help it—and genres belong to the audience. Willy-nilly, the man or woman who writes a play falls into the hands of a monster full of expectations that, one way or another, have to be answered. Authors unwilling to give the expected answer had better have a fresh one ready up their sleeve. Knowing and admiring Neal Bell's plays, I went into Monster puzzling over why he might want to be the 2090th person to kick Mary Shelley's old tale around. As I should have guessed, he had a fresh answer ready. There's a sense in which Frankenstein, born two centuries ago at a house party of poets and intellectuals, doesn't belong to the horror genre anyway: Its luridness is a vehicle less for gore than for a philosophic quest. Without neglecting the story, Bell has seized on this aspect of it to produce a work in which the overfamiliar thrill scenes are linked back to their intellectual sources, and the end result, though sparing us the conventional gore, is ultimately much scarier.

Victor Frankenstein, the first of modern popular culture's "mad scientists," came from a nightmare Mary Shelley had at the very beginning of the Industrial Revolution. A faith healer whose only faith is in science, Victor wants to prevent death. This ties him, inevitably, to the central question all religions and all philosophies have struggled to answer: why we live, why we die, which is more desirable. The product, at least in Bell's version, of an aloof, rationalistic father and a devout, embittered mother, Victor has to invent himself a life of ceaseless experiment allied to neither model. His cousin Elizabeth, his friend Clerval, his little brother, and the maid all dote on him; he loves nobody.

Victor's solution is to invent a scientific alternative to death, in effect robbing life of its principal terror, enabling him to choose his way calmly. In the experimental process, he raises a stitched-together cadaver from the dead but gets far more than he bargained for: Morally blank, the creature is full of desires that Victor finds too complex to control, and (since he hasn't anticipated public reaction to its existence) too dangerous to conceal. He abandons it in the woods, hoping it will die. Instead, it learns survival, and lives only to take vengeance on him—ironically, by destroying those he loves, or would if he were capable of love. Eventually, Victor is compelled to track the creature into an arctic wasteland, where he puts an end to it as well as to himself.

Christopher Donahue and Jake Weber in Monster: grave matters
photo: Dixie Sheridan
Christopher Donahue and Jake Weber in Monster: grave matters

Details

Monster
By Neal Bell, based on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
Classic Stage Company
156 East 13th Street
212-677-4210

Carson Mccullers (Historically Inaccurate)
By Sarah Schulman
The Women's Project Theatre
424 West 55th Street
212-239-6200

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Shelley's novella gained its first widespread popularity from the understandable fear (now repeatedly confirmed) of what might happen if science started tampering actively with the natural course of life. With the advent of the first stage adaptations in the mid 19th century, and their innumerable filmic successors, popular interest shifted lower, as it were, to interpret the creature as a walking phallus. The scientist's fear of death got Freudianized into a fear of wedding-night impotence. The penis, that unreliable appendage famous for popping up at inconvenient moments and playing dead just when you need it most, became the work's clandestine locus of interpretation, reaching its climax, if you will forgive the expression, when Madeline Kahn burst into song in Young Frankenstein. The bigger but more nebulous philosophic question, to which the erectile tissue is only an incidental reflex, was jettisoned along the way.

This is where Bell comes into his element: Starting from Shelley's original, but with a sharp eye for cogency and a sharp ear for the turn of a phrase, he has managed to locate the philosophic germ inside each of the horror myth's iconic scenes. The scare is still there, but it now has other functions than merely frightening your inner child with fantasies of impotence, rape, and castration on a dark and stormy night. If you really want to frighten yourself, there's always today's paper; if you want a dramatic story that makes you think about the meaning and purpose of life, you should probably go and see Monster.

There is a drawback: Michael Greif, who directed, has divided his responsibilities oddly. His physical production is close to optimal, with Kenneth Posner's lighting, articulate and subtle, leading the way. Everything looks right, sounds right, moves rightly. (A minor quibble: Greif slightly overworks two effects—thunder and the creature's appearance in silhouette behind an upstage scrim.) But then there's the acting. True, Christopher Donahue's creature mixes endearing innocence and obdurate malevolence to just the right degree, and Annie Parisse, as Victor's loving cousin, is always on the edge of excess but magically never pushes her way across the line. The rest of the supporting cast, though, ranges from the ordinary to the actively baneful, treating Bell's elegant lines as so much oatmeal to mush about in their mouths, alternately blank of feeling or stridently missing its tone. Every time Greif's staging takes on a hint of atmosphere, one of them comes crashing on to dispel it. Hard to believe the piece was shaped by the same director who just steered so many actors the right way, in Dogeaters, working with a far less tractable text.

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