The idea of connecting the reigns of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and Vlad the Impaler — the bloodthirsty inspiration for Dracula — is an intriguing jumping-off point for a play. But in the lackluster world preem of Anne Washburn’s “The Communist Dracula Pageant” at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., however, the scenario is a dive into dullness.
Stylistically promising at first, the play incorporates a tacky-but-true 1976 celebration during which Ceausescu (Thomas Derrah) and his daft, terrifying wife, Elena (Karen MacDonald), salute old Vlad (Will LeBow).
But the time-jumping production soon starts wandering aimlessly in tone from parody to polemic, from historic re-enactment to avant-garde pretension — all under the leaden pace and unfocused staging of helmer Annie Kauffman.
The design environment at least is ready for theatrical satire with Mimi Lien’s keen eye for Eastern Bloc dreariness, Christal Weatherly’s appropriately odd costumes (love the hammer and sickle headwear), Tyler Micoleau’s deliberately unsophisticated lighting and David Remedios’ sound design, which has the static and scratchiness of a country decades behind in technology.
Playwright Washburn, whose “The Internationalist” showed she can balance big ideas with nuance and imagination, revives her previously workshopped 1999 script for this A.R.T. go-round. But it has the warmed-over feel of a work still in search of itself. The play’s subtitle suggests its dramaturgical bridge to nowhere: “By Americans, for Americans, a play about the Romanian Revolution of 1989 with hallucinations, phosphorescence and bears.”
Some of the script comes from transcripts of real events, including a televised speech by Romanian revolutionaries overthrowing the Ceausescus and the Christmas 1989 trial that culminated in the pair’s conviction and swift execution. Other parts are fantastical elements exploring the madness of the genocidal reign of a mediocre man and his delusional wife.
In the Ceausescus, Washburn has two ripe characters that combine horror and loopiness: think of a surreal Eva and Juan Peron. But the scribe only goes so far with these characters, in the end making them not only ineffectual but also uninteresting.
Still, MacDonald finds powerful colors as Elena, the woman who, though she only had a fourth-grade education, imagined herself as a world-renowned scientist. Her speech to an inquiring young student is a gem of blather.
But Washburn doesn’t give Derrah much to work with, and his character comes across as a generic, bland villain.
Much luckier is LeBow, who plays Vlad using all his rich bass notes. He also is a wonderful empty suit as one of the dictator’s yes men — one who can revive a moment from his youth in erotic detail but simply can’t recall what led him to his moral bankruptcy. Matthew Maher also stands out as a politico who attempts to challenge his leader.
Worthwhile themes hover throughout the play, ranging from the abuses of power to the creation of politically crafted mythologies, to the targeting of media as an enemy of the state (“It’s the printing press!” Vlad explodes in frustration). But neither the ideas — nor the fun — linger for long in a grim pageant that lacks any real bite.