"Dracula" is the perfect play for sane schizophrenics. It works on two levels: giggle at the camp, gaggle at the horror, chortle at the sillies, shudder at the blood.
What properly has been called "the Edward Gorey version," because of that artist's black and white sets and costumes, last night arrived on the Eisenhower stage for a five week run.
An excellent visual cloning job has been done, for this copy looks - and plays - exactly as it does in New York, where Frank Langella's company continues and where, after he has time out for his annual Shakespeare in Central Park, the Kennedy Center's Raul Julia will preside over the blood-sucking.
Its two-level approach, high-style camp and ghoulish atmospherics, probably account for this most successful of several concurrent stage and TV "Draculas". The novel was written by Sir Henry Irving's long-time box-office and stage manager and acting associate, Bram Stoker, who knew that Irving's melodramas made him a lot more money than his lavish Shakespearen triumphs.
The story, in case you've been living at the bottom of a very dry well, concerns Lucy, daughter of Dr. Seward. Lucy has been looking pale lately. She's testy about having her father ascribes those marks on her neck to a mishap with a safety pin
Learning of her symtoms her father's longtime Dutch friend, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, scurries over from Amsterdam to Dr. Seward's castle like sanitarium near London. Hip-hip and three cheers for Dr. Van Helsing, who begins to be suspicious about the Sewards' charming, hand-kissing new neighbor, Count Dracula.
The fine points of blood-sucking, how people get that way, how long they live, what they do for kicks and other scientific points engage those who long to believe in such. When Count Dracula, disguised as a bat, makes his escape just as rosy down is breaking, the house goes mad with joyous shouts. The dastardly field has escaped his entirely justified pursuers.
Well, you think, we're all rotten to the core, cheering the fiend's escape in that way. But, wait. Act III is coming up. Will we noble, law-abiding citizens weep and boo when, finally, Count Dracula's bosom is pierced by a stake? It's perfectly okay for it's to be done, thanks to wily stoker, for the christain belief in his release from his curse.
So, "Dracula" serves our schizophrenia healthily.
Under Dennis Rosa's controlled staging the play's period of the 1920s is neatly observed, and who cares whether the air schedules were working that well way back then? That is was way, way back we know from the first voice heard, apart from the howling of wolves: jeanette MacDonald warbling on one of those old 78s. As MacDonald chirps the high notes, Margaret Whitton, her blond hair marcelled, her feet shed according to the era, swoops and poses with the true daintinees of the '20s one naughty, now so innocent.
The high-camp effect comes from avoiding too much mockery. Julia's Dracula, garbed in black velvet and red-lined cape, is different from Langella's. Julia uses his deep voice tellingly, seeming to trade small laughs for big ones when he comes to a particularly purple passage delivered smack out at the house. Julia is a big-time actor having a modest spree at, one trusts, an immodest salary.
David Hurst, once so active at Arena Stage, is wondrously guttural as the persistent Van Helsing and Whitton wondrously wan as Lucy. Following Richard Kavanaugh as Renfield, John Long makes much of the inmate who catches flies because he thinks they'll prolong his life. Nick Stannard, tall and blond, is a stalwart hero. Victoria Page, Dalton Dearborn and Fritz Sperberg complete the cast.