Playwright Len Jenkins’ “Invisible Man” has about as much to do with H.G. Wells as cats do with catsup. Ostensibly based on the book by Wells, the play carries the same title as Wells’ classic tale, but retains hardly any of the original’s nuance and humanity, and almost none of the plot. If fidelity to source material isn’t your main concern, however, this Children’s Theater production is nevertheless a breezy, eminently watchable stage thriller that contains at least a few special effects capable of amusing, if not entirely mystifying, anyone who loves well-excuted stage magic.
“The Invisible Man” was written in 1897, but Jenkins jumps the action ahead 60 years to 1957. On the outskirts of a town called Glowville (there’s a nuclear power plant nearby), a young widow (Charity Jones) and her teenage son Jim (Luke M. Ingles) run a small lodge called the Sleepy Daze Inn, where of all places, atomic scientist-on-the-lam Jack Griffin (Gerald Drake) chooses to hide out after being fired from the nuclear power plant and committing a rash of crimes in the area.
Entering Phantom-like in a black trenchcoat and wide-brimmed hat, his body wrapped in gauze, Griffin immediately begins making demands like a spoiled rock star. Dissatisfied with his original room assignment, Griffin decides to take up residence in the Inn’s parlor.
Griffin quickly makes friends with young Jim, and turns the boy into his confidant, assistant and lookout. Jim is ripe for idolatry since losing his father in the Korean war, and a sucker for science to boot. Together, the two continue Griffin’s desperate search to find a way to control his powers of invisibility. As the story unfolds, and Griffin’s evil designs become more and more obvious, much is made of the fact that Griffin is a scientist whose hunger for knowledge turned into a thirst for power. “An invisible man is like a God!” cries Griffin at one point. But as intoxicated as he is by the “power” he has when he’s invisible, Griffin doesn’t have much of an imagination for what he might do with that power beyond looting a few stores and copping some free travel. Playwright Jenkin almost completely ignores the fact that to the original Jack Griffin, invisibility was a horrible nuisance: He couldn’t eat in public (floating food tends to gives waiters the willies), walk down the street without being bumped into, or wear clothes, even on the coldest days.
The original Jack Griffin just wanted to be visible again after making what he realized was a tragic mistake. The updated Jack Griffin is, in the tradition of modern movies and television shows, a maniacal psychopathic control freak.
The people who see the most potential in and get the most out of Griffin’s invisibility are those on the Children’s Theater special effects team. Griffin’s invisibility is made manifest through a combination of clever puppet manipulations, sleight-of-hand gimmicks and black-light tricks. Not all the tricks work perfectly, but most do.
Considering that he plays the role of the Invisible Man with his head completely covered in gauze, Drake does a tremendous job of communicating Griffin’s volatile two-faced nature. Likewise, Ingles delivers a persuasive performance as the precocious but troubled young Jim, and Jones is equally charming as Jim’s conservative, strong-willed mother. If the play took place in the 1990s, there would doubtless be a strong dose of sexual tension between Griffin and Marjorie. But the distortion of Wells’ original story doesn’t dip quite so low. The worst the Children’s Theater has done is transform one of the world’s greatest science fiction stories into a grade-B play.