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Dracula at the Wilbur Theater Tonight at 8 p.m.


EVERYONE KNOWS the story of Dracula: an "undead" creature refuses to lie still in the grave, sustaining himself, between sunset and sunrise, on the blood of innocent mortals. This Anti-Christ dooms his victims to flock in his unearthly host forever; they become "flesh of his flesh." Only herbs or holy objects can ward him off, and only a stake through his heart can end his lecherous career. The story is terrifically titillating: all that sacrilege and perverse sexuality to relish.

At the Wilbur Theater, Edward Gorey '50, a writer/illustrator noted for his macabre wit, and Dennis Rosa, an Obie award winning director, have resurrected "Dracula," a 1927 play by Hamilton Deane and John Balderston. It is no occasion for hallelujahs, though. Dracula should be great on stage, with immediate, uncelluloid flesh and blood primed for the mauling. But the evening at the Wilbur is anemic.

In this version, the setting is London; the time, the '20s. Lucy Seward, fair kind maiden, is wasting away mysteriously in her father's sanatorium. Plagued by nightmares, the girl wakes paler each morning. (An example of the excruciating mental processes: The girl has two tiny cuts on her neck. Wolves howl on the moor. Bats rustle in the window curtains. "We suspect the wounds are the result of an accident with a safety pin, used when fastening her scarf," remarks the good doctor Seward, our man of science.) Soon to arrive on the scene are Jonathan Hacker, Lucy's fiance (tall, freckled, devoted) and Dr. Van Helsing, a colleague of Seward (fat, Dutch, intellectual).

Lucy feels some aversion to Hacker, but she does warm to her new neighbor, Count Dracula. The caped leech has been visiting more regularly than anyone realizes--and not to borrow cups of sugar, either. It is only a matter of time before the heroic trinity of Seward, Hacker and Van Helsing realize what evil, half-human force they must fight in their quest to save Lucy. Two and a half acts later, they will nail him.

Meantime, a maid is hypnotized; mist wafts; blood is sucked; and Miss Lucy becomes the bride of Dracula. It is not as exciting as it sounds.

The trouble is that everyone does know the story, or at least some version of it. The Deane-Balderston play is hopelessly dated; it does not rattle anyone's teeth, and the only resonances suggest old Clairol commercials. ("Now I am full of vitality. Before I was such a poor drab thing..." says one blonde character to another.) The production is paced like an old movie running on a rusty projector. There is no tension, no energy. Characters constantly strike poses straight out of silent pictures--but with none of the old film actors' sincerity.

Gorey's sets and costumes--although extraordinary--don't help. The nearly two-dimensional sets, done entirely in black, white and grays, with exhilaratingly high ceilings, grotesque details and bat motifs everywhere, are certainly fascinating; but despite all this marvelous Gorey-esqueness, you just have to wonder. Given the characters taste in interior decoration (bats patterned on pillows, wallpaper, paneling and balustrades), just why do the Sewards find vampires so peculiar? Something smacks of self-indulgence.

In his books, Gorey piles hackneyed literary convention upon hackneyed literary convention to reach a gruesome black-humor conclusion. Stylized drawings of upper crust twerps develop into tiny portraitures of weirdly haunted people. But this time the script does not fit the Gorey formula. Although everyone looks straight out of a Gorey story, you cannot sink your teeth into the paper-thin characters. And unlike his books, you cannot flip through this play. You just have to sit there, watching boring characters witlessly enacting a plot whose ending you already know.

To compound the problem, most of the actors in this "bound-for-Broadway" production do not even try to enliven the proceedings. Ann Sachs as Lucy, the pale afflicted one, is the first character to appear on stage. She has enough energy to flit about in her gossamer frock--but right off the bat, we can tell she is wan and vapid. Other characters are not much better.

Even Dracula's menace is reduced to the swishing of his cape. Played by Frank Langella. Dracula is all chin and pointed shoes; the man is so thin he looks like a caricature from Punch. His portrayal is no more full-bodied than he is: mere clenched fists, graceful slinking and fierce screams are not of themselves blood-chilling. It is a mystery that Dracula succeeds in hypnotizing people when no one on stage ever seems to look each other in the eye. They all shuffle and prance. Not one makes a move that goes right for the jugular.

The only character worth watching is Renfield, a touched (in the head, if not the neck) patient of Dr. Seward. Richard Kavanaugh in the role compulsively swallows flies, swoops onto sofas reposes upside down and babbles madly about the Master.

Don't expect your heart to leap into your throat at this Dracula. More likely, it will sink into another corner of sour anatomy. You would never hear your heart pounding anyway. Even if there were an ominous moment, your heartbeat would be blared out by cliched music of the horror-movie ilk. Every potentially scary minute is ruined, and by the third or fourth refrain the music is not even campy enough to be funny.

DOWN THE STREET from the Wilbur, at the Astor moviehouse, The Saga of Dracula is now playing. Its sleazy poster claims "The King of Vampires sucks on." Perhaps it would have been more worthwhile to have seen the entertainment there, rather than to have hiked down to the Wilbur--where the King of Vampires simply sucks.

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