Theater archives

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.

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.

It would be unfair to lump Jake Weber’s Victor in the same unhappy category. Here’s a young actor whom we know to be articulate and energetic, at least. But he hasn’t had the challenge of a heroically demanding lead role like this before, and it shows. He works up a lot of emotional steam, dashing through the longer speeches at top speed as if it would make them more exciting; he writhes and fidgets and suffers audibly. What he never does is build the role. At best, you could say he fights it to a draw. You never feel that it belongs to him, that he is a man of science who could be speaking these words, or that he’s finding deeper and deeper emotions in himself as his situation steadily gets worse. With its dual sense of narrative closure onstage and burning questions left unanswered in the larger world, the last scene ought to be overpowering; instead, it catches fire only at the final moment, because Bell has had the good sense to leave the creature the devastating last word. For those willing to listen past the acting, every line in the text is that good.

As we turn to our next monster, questions of historical accuracy can be left aside. The problem with Carson McCullers (Historically Inaccurate) is the first half of the title. Does loving Carson McCullers, as one does, make seeing a play about Carson McCullers necessary? Probably not. Stage biography, accurate or otherwise, is more problematic than almost any other genre, hard to make convincing as anything but a loose string of events and and-then-she-wrotes. In addition, McCullers, a fairly unusual figure even among authors, has been much written about. There was a stage version of her correspondence with Tennessee Williams not so many years ago, and—as Sarah Schulman’s script pointedly remarks several times—her own works constitute a sort of public autobiography.

A headstrong and difficult person, McCullers never wholly outgrew a vein of lurid adolescent fantasy that travels through her remarkable writing. She had extreme mood swings, drank and smoked heavily, had a difficult on-again, off-again relationship with her equally drink-prone husband, and was afflicted with a series of strokes undoubtedly abetted by her alcohol dependence. Apart from her literary successes, hers is neither a long nor a particularly happy story. Its special problem, for dramatic purposes, is that it goes nowhere: Her troubled and restless childhood becomes a troubled and restless adulthood; she writes, she suffers, she dies. Dressing the tale up with “inaccurate” diversions, like an imaginary affair between McCullers and Gypsy Rose Lee, rather than heightening the dramatic tension, only confuses the issue.

To delve into the connection between McCullers’s life and her works might offer some interest, but Schulman, hampered by the limits of permissible quotation, spends little time examining either the prose or the range of public reactions to it. The Strindbergian catch-22 of McCullers’s marriage, with each party resenting the other’s devotion more than anything, makes for some effective writing, but also for repetition, since the situation is a stasis from which only death can supply an exit. Too much of the rest seems scattershot, a chronicle detailing the agony of a person who never changes. The final impression is of a playwright so passionately invested in her subject that the source of her passion hasn’t been communicated to us.

And it’s not as if Marion McClinton’s production is uncommunicative: Jenny Bacon handles the title role’s recurring tantrums with grace and solidity, Rick Stear is touching as her hapless husband, and the supporting cast is generally quite good, although Tim Hopper’s Tennessee Williams is so ultra-blasé he nearly suggests Noël Coward.