“It requires all my fortitude to recall the memory of the frightful events which I am about to relate, in proper detail, to my recollection.” Thus runs a typical sentence from Mary Shelley’s frantically gothic novel “Frankenstein,” but they serve equally well as a preface to a critical assessment of Neal Bell’s new stage adaptation of the book for the Classic Stage Company. Great God! (Another favorite Mary-ism.) How to describe the sensational silliness of this endeavor? Talk about your unspeakable creations!
Although Shelley’s novel is not widely considered a literary masterpiece — its teeth-gnashing prose is often unintentionally comic — it continues to intrigue as a philosophical exploration of various ideas that have eternal currency. It can be read as a parable about man’s troubled relation to God, or as a cautionary tale about the abuses of scientific knowledge. Feminists have viewed it as a condemnation of the male gender’s destructive hubris and as a conflicted examination of childbearing and its responsibilities. The creature itself is a peculiarly moving creation, a prototypical antihero who, by remaining alienated from humanity, shows us what real humanity is and how it can be wantonly destroyed.
Bell and director Michael Greif’s adaptation of the book captures its overwrought tone rather handily: The play begins with a couple of actors playing barking dogs, and the barking doesn’t stop for the next two hours. But the adaptation’s approach to the various philosophical issues raised by Shelley’s tale is crude and cursory, and its fluctuating tone — now fragrantly gothic, now airily pretentious, now snarkily ironic — leaves its hard-working cast stranded in a kind of stylistic limbo akin to that endured by Dr. F’s unfortunate spawn, resulting in some of the most ghastly acting to be seen on a New York stage in recent memory.
Bell’s version of the tale retains many details from the original novel that subsequent adaptations have discarded. So the play begins in the Arctic, where Victor Frankenstein, played by Jake Weber (condolences), meets up with a naval explorer. He’s in hot pursuit of his demonic creation, as in the book, and the story unfolds in a series of flashbacks on Robert Brill’s sleek, minimal black set.
We see the precocious Victor as a child (“Papa, is there a God?” “Papa am I a god?”), and watch him perform some nasty experiments on mama’s cat. He quickly moves up the food chain to human beings. A Ben Franklin kite contraption yields the needed spark of electricity — and an odd sexual outburst from Victor’s devoted cousin Elizabeth (Annie Parisse), but never mind. Presto! The famous monster lumbers to life, without the film’s famous bolts in the neck, or any clothing either, for a disconcertingly long amount of stage time. After some basic verbal ejaculations that evoke an unintended kind of empathy from an already mystified audience (“I hurt!,” “I want to go home!”), the monster gets mad and starts wreaking havoc on Victor’s nearest and dearest.
Most disappointing is this treatment of the monster himself. Here Bell perversely chooses to depart from the novel, which presented us with an implausibly well-spoken but deeply sympathetic character. Bell’s text is full of rampant implausibilities, but the monster he reduces to a grunting, childish beast for most of the play; the creature’s long and moving monologue is the highlight of the book, an eloquent discussion of the agonizing pain of loneliness and rejection and the dehumanizing consequences of it. But Bell’s cranky, ogre-ish creature never touches our hearts (actor Christopher Donahue isn’t really to blame) and never seems, as in the novel, paradoxically more human than Victor himself.
It’s clear enough that Bell has boned up on critical writing about the book: There are allusions to the French revolution (another lit-crit angle) and a bizarre and icky scene in which Victor and Elizabeth discuss her menstruation and he produces tactile evidence of it. There’s some homoeroticism thrown in for good measure (why not?), and plenty of musings about God, life, death and the mystery of existence.
But Bell doesn’t trust the audience to discover subtexts; he plasters the play from beginning to end in arch little thematic Post-Its. And his tin-eared dialogue and pseudo-whimsical approach (a talking cat?) produce unintended laughs that make it impossible to take the text’s many heavy-breathing passages seriously. (My favorite moment: The monster descends menacingly upon a servant girl who, a few scenes previously, had fled from his vile embrace. Her response: “Hello! How have you been?”)
What we have, to conclude, is another dispiriting example — coming hot on the heels of Sarah Schulman’s oddball dissertation on Carson McCullers — of a playwright and director puffed up with all sorts of clever ideas about a subject but absolutely no clue how to compose them into an organic, theatrically satisfying whole.