By George Allison
Reviewed by Robert Viagas
Mary Shelley wrote the novel Frankenstein in 1818 and James Whale adapted it as a classic Hollywood horror film in 1931. Since then, the story of a scientist who pushes science too far has gotten countless adaptations, sequels and prequels in every medium. Writers find the tale endlessly fascinating.
In his new play Doctor Frankenstein, George Allison takes a different angle on the legend, offering us a drama narrated by the doctor himself, who wants to give us the “real story” behind what he claims is Shelley’s sensationalized version of his life. Audiences will quickly find themselves longing for the original.
The concept is strong, but the script, as staged by Cat Parker, is wordy, static and repetitive.
Allison’s Dr. Frankenstein (John Blaylock) explains that he created the real monster in order to save the life of his friend, master physician Dr. James Lind (Steve Shoup), whose body was crushed in a street accident, but whose brilliant brain was able to be saved. Frankenstein and Lind had been experimenting with bringing dead animals back to life through the use of electricity and special serum. The accident affords the perfect chance to see if the procedure works on humans.
Frankenstein places the brain of the frail old man into what’s supposed to be the strapping body of a young laborer. Then Lind awakens in his new body, he is neither grateful nor happy and the two of them talk about why for a long time. And then talk about it more in more scenes. They are joined by Frankenstein’s much-younger and similarly verbose fiancé Elizabeth (Tammy McNeill), who starts to become a love interest for the monster. Frankenstein himself is portrayed as such an self-important snob you can hardly blame her.
The script has more surgery scars than the monster. Among Frankenstein’s complaints about Mary Shelley’s novel is her lack of hard-core medical knowledge. A few scenes later we see Frankenstein believing he can reanimate a brain he has kept in a box for eleven years. Lind complains about having the body of a street cleaner, a bit of biography that hadn’t previously been established. Lind asserts that he’s in constant pain, but moves about the stage with no obvious discomfort. Dr. F also calls himself a monster, then a few minutes later is asserting that he’s “blameless.”
On the upside, this is an exceptionally impressive-looking production for an Off-Off-Broadway show. Eric Siegel’s beautiful and creepy projections, especially the ones in Frankenstein’s office, get high marks, as does a realistic-looking cadaver, which undergoes a trepanning and brain extraction in full view of the audience. In a nod to Whale’s classic film, the reanimation scene employs a real electric arc machine, as part of the set designed by the playwright himself. If only his script were as compelling and visceral.
Doctor Frankenstein is playing a limited run through November 23 at the West End Theatre at the Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.