FRANKENSTEIN, adapted by Victor Gialanella from the novel by Mary Shelley; directed by Tom Moore; scenery by Douglas W. Schmidt; special effects by Bran Ferren; music by Richard Peaslee; lighting by Jules Fisher and Robby Monk; with David Dukes, Keith Jochim, John Carradine; Dianne Wiest, John Glover, Jill P. Rose and Douglas Seale.
At the Palace Theater, New York City.
One of the movies of "The Hound of the Baskervilles" -- the version with Peter Cushing, I think, as Sherlock Holmes -- is rolling along quite nicely until the hound himself makes his entrance. Despite a certain look of ill will on the houndly countenance, embellished by a vaguely malevolent stream of saliva foaming though the gaps in his teeth, and despite the commendable vigor with which the hound accelerates across the moor in the general direction of the camera and a potential victim's throat, something is missing. He is not very large, this hound -- about the size of a Dalmatian -- and not very threatening. One good kick in the flank would probably send him squealing back to wherever he came from.
The monster of the $1.25-million "Frankenstein that opened last night at New York's Palace Theater -- reportedly the most expensive straight play ever produced (surpassing the $1-million-plus "Amadeus") -- is a disappointment of similar proportions. He is a few inches taller than the humans he terrorizes, and there are unpleasant stitches across his forehead, continuing a tradition established (I think) by Boris Karloff. But even before he learns to talk and read the Bible and use a spoon properly, this is a monster who seems to owe more to Charles Addams than to Mary Shelley. If you were a football coach and he applied to join your defensive line, you'd tell him to put on some weight and try again next year.
The lack of a properly horrific monster is a serious lack indeed in a production so single-mindedly dedicated to keeping an audience on the edge of its seats, and so determined not to camp things up. A more serious problem in Victor Gialanella's bland, predictable, prosaic adaptation, which somehow manages to be neither particularly faithful to the novel nor particularly original.
Gialanella, director Tom Moore and their assorted producers must have thought they could wow an audience with elaborate scenery, electronic music and special effects -- the kind of sensational mood enhancers we are used to seeing on film rather than stage. Maybe they were right. Only the box-office grosses will tell, and they will surely be watched as a case study in the theater's ability to compete, technologically, with movies, and to spend huge sums of money wisely.
No one will accuse "Frankenstein's" sponsors of spending their money inconspicuously. Douglas W. Schmidt's settings -- the graveyard where Victor Frankenstein finds his raw materials; the Tudor interior of the Frankenstein family castle; the towering, bubbling-vat-filled laboratory where Victor manufactures new life; and the dark Swiss forest where the innocent monster has his first taste of evil -- fly on and off stage with the speed of cinematic dissolves, while fog pumps briskly out of the floorboards and a Moog synthesizer fills the house with spine-shaking music.
The story has been updated, it seems, from the late 18th to the late 19th century, so that Frankenstein's laboratory can be decorated with neon-lit, jukebox-like electric dynamos that crackle and sparkle ominously. And in the conflagration that attends Victor's final dual with his monster, Schmidt has managed to make it seem as if the whole castle is exploding.
Unfortunately, all these pyrotechnics leave little time for characterization. David Dukes, who played Richard Gere's concentration-camp lover in last year's "Bent," gives a thoroughly creditable performance here as Frankenstein, a role he stepped into just 10 days ago. But the script has so stripped away the emotions of the character -- including his grief at the deaths of his brother, best friend and bride -- that there isn't much Dukes can do with him. And that's how it is with the rest of the cast, a surprisingly able group of actors with depressingly little to do.
There is one happy exception. The producers have managed to lure John Carradine into the role of DeLacey, the kind, blind old man who takes the monster under his wing and gives him some much-needed culture. A veteran of such horror movies as "The Mummy's Ghost," "House of Dracula" and, indeed, "House of Frankenstein," Carradine plays his little role to the melodramatic hilt, injecting the show -- for one brief moment -- with biological as well as technological life.