‘Dracula’ goes to camp in hilarious new telling of classic tale

Arnie Burton and James Daly in 'Dracula, a Comedy of Terrors.'
Arnie Burton and James Daly in ‘Dracula, a Comedy of Terrors.’
Matthew Murphy

There have been so many iterations and interpretations of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” in the past 125 years that one might easily think the topic has been bled dry. The story has often been played for sex appeal, as in “Edward Gorey’s Dracula” on Broadway 45 years ago when swoon-worthy Frank Langella embodied the iconic vampire, or for horror, as in this summer’s film “Last Voyage of the Demeter.”

Now it’s being played for laughs (non-stop belly laughs, actually) in “Dracula: A Comedy of Terrors” now at New World Stages. This is a Dracula for our time with a script by Gordon Greenberg and Steve Rosen that’s part meta-commentary, part campy romp, and part slapstick farce. It’s also got a touch of horror and more than a hint of sex, and the 90-minute piece flies by like the proverbial bat. The comedy is reminiscent of Monty Python where academic humor goes cheek by jowl with unabashed silliness.

The story will be more or less familiar to people who know nearly any previous version. Dracula has come to England, falls in love with Lucy (rather than Mina in the original), and is leaving dead and undead in his wake. Once the mortals are on to him, they must destroy Dracula if they are to live in in peace. There is plenty of gender-bending, and Dracula himself is reimagined more in the vein of Sydney Carton from “A Tale of Two Cities,” so that his inevitable demise is more a sacrifice for love, which he milks shamelessly and egotistically. Greenberg and Rosen play fast and loose with some of the supposed rules of the supernatural, but none of that matters because zany as it is, the piece has its own internal logic, and the manic pace admits little daylight between bursts of hilarity. 

Greenberg has also directed, and he is a laugh maker who knows how to build a joke that puts him in a class with noted comic directors Casey Nicholaw and Jerry Zaks. 

And then there’s the cast. James Daly as the bloodthirsty count has a look that blends English Romanticism with contemporary athleticism…and he makes fun of it. Daly’s Dracula is a man boy who can’t imagine that anyone won’t be immediately smitten with him, but his journey from self-involved to self-sacrificing has undertones of sweetness. His inability to understand Lucy’s rejection of him for the less-sexy, more stable Harker baffles him completely. 

All the other actors play multiple roles. Ellen Harvey is wonderful as Dr. Westenra and the insane Renfield. The ridiculous switching back and forth between the characters never gets old. Andrew Keenan-Bolger is irresistible as Jonathan Harker, Dracula’s real estate broker, and a timid man in love with Lucy. However, once Dracula gets his teeth into Harker, the mild manner disappears, and Harker’s repressed nature bursts out in a torrent of attitude and fetish wear. Jordan Boatman is delightful as Lucy, combining Victorian propriety with a very modern view of what a woman can do.

Arnie Burton, however, walks away with the show. Well, “flounces away” might be more accurate. He plays Mina in full drag — including a ridiculous wig — as Lucy’s sex-starved, less attractive sister who’s sidelined as Harker and Lucy plan their wedding. Mina throws herself at Dracula, and he ultimately takes her, but it’s clear that the taking is from hunger. Burton also plays Jean Van Helsing, the doctor who solves the mystery and saves the day. By the way that’s a female Jean, and Burton is a mix of Frau Blucher from “Young Frankenstein” and an evolved feminist who won’t let her accomplishments be ignored just because she’s a woman. Burton is one of those rare actors who has perfect timing, can wring the last chortle from a big laugh and do more with a look than almost anyone else. 

Even with all the antics, however, what makes this show so rich is that the creators don’t ignore the themes of the original — sexual repression, and the power of science over the supernatural are just two. 

All told, this is a bloody good evening, and I defy anyone not to be positive as the curtain falls.  

Dracula: A Comedy of Terrors | New World Stages | 340 West 50th Street | Mon, Weds, Thurs, Sun 7 p.m.; Fri, Sat 8 p.m.; Sat, Sun 2 p.m. | Tickets from $114 at Telecharge | 90 minutes, no intermission