New Yorkers are flocking to the most romantic play in town, from a novel written 80 years ago by the box office manager for Sir Henry Irving, the most romantic actor of his age. Sir Henry would never act it, but Bram Stoker knew what people wanted and he called it "Dracula."
Now it is on the Martin Beck stage in the high romantic style of the 1920s, when the novel finally did become a play. The settings and costumes now are designed by that wicked pen-and-dunk illustrator-story teller, Edward Gorey, and the titel part is acted by tall, dark, romantic Frank Langella in a black velvet cloak with bood-red lining.
Gorey's first setting is an etching, blown up a thousand fold, of a library with high, vaultd ceiling. Through the opened window from a vast distance, dogs howl. Or are they wolves? Tripping in on high silver heels, gowned in white chiffon, Lucy clunks a record on the Gothim-arched, wind-up phonograph, Victor Schertizinger's "Dream Lover."
Into Dr. Seward's remote sanatorium will come Lucy's anxious father, the visiting, pontifical Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, a mad patient who catches files, a couple of servants and Count Dracula from Carpathia. He surprises people when he enters a room:
"Forgive me," he murmers. "My football is not heavy." Proffered a drink, the Count regrets: "No, thank you. I never drink ... Wine." Dr. Van Helsing ponders: "A few marks on the throat .. We decided she must have pierced the skin of her throat with a safety pin." The Count declares, with a 500 years of living to back him up: "The superstitions of today are the scientific facts of tomorrow." (And I count 30 heads in front of me nodding in solemn agreement.)
The remarkable aspect of this revival of the Hamilton Deane-John L. Balderston adaptation is that it holds not because it's campy or because bats fly around rooms but because it's story line is played with utter respect. Co-producer John Wulp has been nurturing this totally straight version staged several Nantucket summers ago by Dennis Rosa. Langella had once acted Dracula in Williamsbown, Gorey was born to draw Dracula and finally the Rosa-Langella styles are joined.
Rosa has done a dashing job with his cast, for almost all seem absorbed in imagined truths behind the vampire experience. Few now acting can match Langella's romanticism and wit. This fine actor, avoiding all comparisons with his predecessor , Bela Lugosi, plays with gleeful restraint. Jerome Dempsey is especially admirable as Van Helsing, as crucial a performance as Lengalla's. Richard Kavanaugh's superbly make-up patient, Ann Sach's limpid Lucy and Alan Coates' earnest fiance are beautifully in key.
Gorey's settings will not disappoint admirers of such of his ghoulish little volumes as "the Gashlycrumb Tinies" and "The Insect God." Blacks, grays and silvery bat wires are the scheme and the wine is always red. Gorey and those who crafted his drawings into reality reach their climax with the tomb scene when all-knowing Dr. Van Helsing will purposefully stand back and , in steady firm arch, plunge a dagger into Dracula's heart. Quelle horreur!
The packed house, largely young and at $15 top, sits enthralled, swallowing all the explanations, philosophical and technical, and when the curtain falls on the last tableou, there will be cheers and standing ovations.
I had two reactions: good fun for it's stylishness and deep depression at the thought that Langella, one of the finest actors in America, and some of these players in "Hamlet" would never make it with this audience on Broadway at $15 top.
Counting up the nightly receipts for 27 years in Sir Henry's Lyceum box office, Bram Stocker knew that Irving made more from Leopold Lewis' Melodrama, "the Bells" than he totalled from "Hamlet."
There is another Dracula off-Broadway, Christopher Bernau in "The Passion of Dracula," a third will be along in February and soon Gorey's drawings will be out in book form. Now if only Gorey would give us some "Hamlet" drawings, perhaps, well perhaps . . . all this T. L. C. and audience could be lavished on a great play.