Reviews

Dracula: A Comedy of Terrors ****

By: Samuel L. Leiter

September 22, 2023: Before it became known as a vehicle for strippers and baggy pants comics, burlesque meant parodies of well-known plays and musical theatre. And that latter meaning perfectly applies to Dracula: A Comedy of Terrors, Gordon Greenberg and Steve Rosen’s comic bite out of Bram Stoker’s 1897 vampire novel, Dracula. It was first dramatized in 1924, seven years before it became a classic horror film starring Romanian-born actor Bela Lugosi, who gained fame for his stage portrayal of the bloodsucking Transylvanian count. Dracula has been the red meat inspiring numerous vampire movies and plays, some intended to make us howl with fright, others to make us gurgle with laughter. The last local attempt came just before the pandemic hit, with Kate Hammill’s Dracula, which I reviewed here.

Arnie Burton and James Daly.

By: Samuel L. Leiter

September 22, 2023: Before it became known as a vehicle for strippers and baggy pants comics, burlesque meant parodies of well-known plays and musical theatre. And that latter meaning perfectly applies to Dracula: A Comedy of Terrors, Gordon Greenberg and Steve Rosen’s comic bite out of Bram Stoker’s 1897 vampire novel, Dracula. It was first dramatized in 1924, seven years before it became a classic horror film starring Romanian-born actor Bela Lugosi, who gained fame for his stage portrayal of the bloodsucking Transylvanian count. Dracula has been the red meat inspiring numerous vampire movies and plays, some intended to make us howl with fright, others to make us gurgle with laughter. The last local attempt came just before the pandemic hit, with Kate Hammill’s Dracula, which I reviewed here.

Dracula: A Comedy of Terrors, the story’s most recent spoof, at New World Stages, cunningly directed by coauthor Greenberg, does a bloody good job of satirizing the original in the anything goes style of the late Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company. The production is more technically polished than most of what Ludlam provided, and its small cast of five, each—except for James Daly as Dracula—playing multiple roles, is every bit as intelligently funny as Ludlam’s crew, knowing just what twists to make in speaking lines or carrying out physical actions in order to suck as much hilarity from them as possible.

Performed in a unit set designed by Tijana Bjelejac—with gloomily gothic features heightened by red neon ribbons that light up in various cleverly spooky configurations as manipulated by lighting designer Rob Denton—this fangs-in-cheek takeoff allows its thespians to have the time of their lives (and deaths). Only rarely winking at the audience (shtickmeister Arnie Burton knows just how much of this to get away with), the incisive actors sink their incisors into the flesh of their material with perfect sangfroid, keeping their characters grounded no matter how batty their behavior. While Dracula uses a mild version of the now standard Central European accent introduced by Lugosi, and Van Helsing does a traditional “Dutch” accent (“shtick” for “stick”), the others employ perfectly posh, stiff-upper-lip British accents or, when needed, Cockney. 

Andrew Keenan Bolger and James Daly.

The non-Dracula players, designated in the Playbill as Actor 1, Actor 2, etc., add to their most prominent role others who often appear via quick changes, puppet substitutes, or old tricks, like letting a wig stand in for someone otherwise engaged. In one bit, actor Andrew Keenan-Bolger appears with two human-sized puppets (designed by Bjelejac) attached to his either side, speaking both his own lines and theirs as he simultaneously makes their mouths move. To be honest, without a character breakdown in the program, and the use of face-covering hair and the like, it’s not always easy to determine which actor is playing which role.

Jonathan Harker is played with inventive precision as a tweedy nerd realtor by Andrew Keenan-Bolger, his diminutive size noticeably dwarfed by the strikingly attractive James Daly, a blonde, totally ripped Adonis who must be 6’4” and whose good looks are matched by terrific comic chops. Veteran Arnie Burton couldn’t be funnier as both the man-hungry Mina, tossing her red wig’s abundant ringlets about with flirtatious abandon, and the ultra-Teutonic Van Helsing (played as a woman), with much the same bosomy authority of Miss Trunchbull in the musical Matilda

Jordan Boatman and Arnie Burton.

Mina’s sister, the dependably chipper Lucy, is in the delightfully capable hands of Jordan Boatman, while Ellen Harvey, in another gender-bending coup, is nothing short of superb as the distinguished Dr. Westfeldt, director of the local loony bin, while being strikingly different as the perennial bug eater Renfield. 

There’s no need to recap the familiar Dracula story, so be assured it’s roughly the same one you’re familiar with, albeit sliced, diced, and juiced up to bring out all its laugh-worthy flavors. When fog is needed, actors walk around spritzing it into the air from what look like hairspray cans. A bat out of hell flies about while attached to a rod held by the actors, who proceed to beat it to a pulp. When someone falls out of a window, the lengthy descent until bottom is reached is amusingly noted. 

Ellen Harvey, James Daly and Arnie Burton.

All the tech elements are first class, Tristan Reyes’s substantial, well-made costumes making witty comic statements; Ashley Rae Callahan’s hair and wig designs being uproariously impressive; and Victoria Deiorio’s sound design offering vital atmospheric contributions. 

It took a bit before I was drawn into the over-the-top proceedings, wondering how I’d be able to maintain interest in such silly shenanigans for an hour and a half. But around 10 minutes in I was bitten, my canines began to lengthen, and I was thirsting for the next farcical morsel sent my way. Yet, surprisingly, given the show’s generally positive notices, I was surprised to see the venue less than half filled. Who would have thought the audience to have had so little blood in it?  

By the way, I’ll soon be seeing a new show called Bite Me, but, happily, it has nothing to do with bats, fangs, blood, garlic, and stakes. On the other hand, playwright Mary Lynn Johnson recently held an invite-only reading of her new play, Dracula, Let Me Count the Ways, with some starry names involved. Could it be that the count is not yet down for the count, and that he’ll remain undead long enough for yet another rebirth? Or will the casket remain closed so we can sing “Fangs for the Memory”? 

Dracula: A Comedy of Terrors ****
New World Stages
340 W. 50th Street, NYC
Open run
Photography: Mathew Murphy

Arnie Burton