Spooky houses aim more for farce than frights in ‘Irma Vep’ and ‘Addams’
The program for The Mystery of Irma Vep, now at WaterTower Theatre, explains how all the roles will be performed by just two actors doing break-neck costume changes. If only that were so. Vep — a satiric pastiche of silent films, Universal horror movies and cheesy Vaudeville melodramas by the great playwright Charles Ludlam — is a farce marked by overacting, Looney Tune plot devices, Hitchcock movies and outrageous effects filled with artifice (when one character kills “a wolf,” the carcass dumped onstage looks like a stool with hair; it’s supposed to). In WaterTower’s production, the actors get that, and serve the camp up with a thick slice of ham.
But director Terry Martin has paced the show sluggishly, which can be death for a farce that feeds on peerless timing. If you promise a quick change, a slightly-faster-than-normal change misses the mark.
Of course, it’s easy to go adrift in Ludlam’s plays. They piece together so many diverse elements, you almost need a scorecard. Vep begins with an obvious nod to both Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Otto Preminger’s Laura: A dark, brooding manse on the English moors houses frivolous and amateur Egyptologist Edgar Hillcrest (Regan Adair), as well as a host of secrets. Edgar is recently married to Enid (Bryan T. Donovan), a nervous former stage actress intimidated by the hatchet-faced housekeeper Jane (Adair again) and the crude, peg-legged groundskeeper Nicodemus (also Donovan). But mostly, she is cowed by the memory of Edgar’s late wife, Irma Vep, whose portrait dominates the great hall. Does Jane want Enid dead? Does Nicodemus want to ravage her? And why won’t Edgar touch her?
Before you can say Daphne du Maurier, however, Jane spies a feral wolf on the heath — a creature that may have killed Edgar’s son Victor and may in fact be a werewolf — and suddenly we’re on Carl Laemmle’s backlot at Universal Pictures, with vampires, ghosts and mummies. Just as quickly, the style pivots, and we’re in a soap opera with spikes of organ music, knee-deep in a recitation of Poe’s The Raven and a scene from Wuthering Heights before being bombarded with tongue-in-cheek jokes about cross-dressing that mock the show itself. It’s all the height of silliness, and both the audience and the actors should leave breathless.
But that never happens here. Many of the elements are in place — stick horses standing in for camels, a dress that harkens to Carol Burnett’s spoof of Gone with the Wind, a bleeding painting so fake you can’t help but blurt out a laugh — but Martin fails to keep us off-guard. (To be fair, opening night was marred by a medical emergency during Act 1 that paused the show for 20 minutes, but even before that, you could tell it wasn’t running at full speed.)
The actors, though, almost save it. Adair has his best in his version of Mrs. Danvers, marked by a high-pitched accent and severe makeup that gives him a corpse-like appearance, though he’s almost as good as the milquetoast bon vivant. Donovan plays Frasier to Adair’s Niles: His burly, unfeminine frame makes Enid’s beauty even more comic, and his physical humor — especially as he hops around the stage on one leg — are peerless.
The set serves the story well, but the lighting needs more stark contrasts to emphasize the Gothic grandeur. Irma Vep needs to be big and fast; this version trudges along like it’s actually stuck in the moors.
For all its cult status, The Addams Family as they became most famously know in American pop culture was — like the similarly campy spoofs on 1960s television, The Munsters and Batman — a short-lived phenomenon. (None of the three series lasted longer than three seasons.) They were funny, these shows about the disconnect between reality and the seemingly oblivious families (or superheroes) who live in an alternate universe where weird is normal. They were the TV equivalent of the schoolyard game “Opposite Day:”
Everything you expect is the reverse of what you see.
The Munsters differed from The Addams Family in one key way: On the former, niece Marilyn was actually “normal;” no member of the Addams clan (save the occasional visitor to their moldering mansion) saw anything odd about a world where blooming flowers were considered hideous, torture was an expression of love and Halloween was the one day when the rest of the world finally caught on.
In the new version, settled in for a spell at the Fair Park Music Hall as this year’s State Fair musical, the adapters, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elise (Jersey Boys), try to have it both ways: They want Wednesday to be the cold-blooded terror of the series (and ‘90s movies) but also crave the middle-brow values of her boyfriend’s parents, buttoned-down Ohioans called the Beinekes. (“Aggh! A swing state!” spews Gomez.) It’s an odd fit — Wednesday’s boyfriend Lucas comes off as more twisted than she — and the plot mirrors far to closely that of La Cage aux Folles, only the secret isn’t that everyone’s gay but that everyone’s ghoul.
But if you just get hung up in the plot of this fluffily macabre musical mélange, you’ll deprive yourself of its joyous dark humor. Brickman, who collaborated writing several of Woody Allen’s early films (he won an Oscar for Annie Hall), had a gift for the smart one-liner. But the gift to the show is Douglas Sills as Gomez. Stepping into the iconic role, Sills makes it his own with excellent comic timing and a larger-than-life presence that dominates the scenes he’s in. You can’t say a musical based on a sitcom which itself was based on a cartoon thrives on character development, but Sills makes you care about Gomez while making him both sexy and goofy.
Sills carries the scenes he’s in, though Sara Gettelfinger and her gravity-defying boobs, Blake Hammond as the mischievous and asexual Uncle Fester and Zachary James impressively deadpan as the hulking manservant Lurch have exceptional moments.
Director Jerry Zaks’ staging can be strange (the show uses curtains to frame scenes oddly), but he has a few inspired bits, such as a love song called “The Moon and Me” and even the curtain call. And it’s too bad that Cousin It and Thing make only fleeting appearances. Andrew Lippa’s score contains a few catchy tunes, though some — like the Act 1 closer “Full Disclosure” — prattle on too long and sap a lot of the show’s momentum.
One reason why the old TV series didn’t last long is that the “Opposite Day” gimmick, just like it did on the playground, grows stale quickly. The saving grace of this Addams Family is that the jokes are varied enough that it doesn’t overstay its welcome. How many visits with your own family can you say that about?
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 5, 2012.