WaterTower Drains Life and Laughs from Mystery of Irma Vep; at Fair Park, Addams Family Lacks Snap

They're creepy and they're kooky, mysterious and spooky. But are they worth a looky?

They'll close before Halloween, but the creepy-kooky-not-really-spooky comedies The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful and The Addams Family Musical have set up camp, in the clutch-the-pearls sense, on two local stages. What frightful disappointments they are.

The first is a two-actor farce whose gimmicks fell flat on opening night, even before a guy in the audience passed out and the show was stopped for 20 minutes so that EMS workers could revive him. (We hear he's fine now. Good for him that he didn't have to suffer the second act.)

The other is a lumbering touring production of a dud Broadway musical given a half-baked makeover for us rubes in fly-over country. We aren't supposed to notice that the new plot is borrowed from another show or that the leading lady can't dance. The last "family musical" this bad at Dallas Summer Musicals was a rusty jalopy called Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang.

There's definitely more potential for laughs, if they can quicken the pace, in the anagrammatic Irma Vep, new at WaterTower Theatre in Addison. It's the late Charles Ludlam's popular 1984 spoof of classic Gothic movie melodramas like Rebecca and The Mummy's Curse. Exactly the sort of thing Dallas' own Pegasus Theatre does so well with the original black-and-white mystery-comedies by its founder, Kurt Kleinmann.

In the dank Mandacrest manor on a foggy English moor, Irma Vep's dour housekeeper, Jane Twisden (played by Regan Adair with a Mrs. Danvers scowl), tries to settle the nerves of the second Lady Hillcrest (Bryan T. Donovan), as the visage of the prettier first wife peers down from a portrait over the fireplace. It's a household in turmoil — the Hillcrest clan is described by Jane as "descending for centuries" — with a werewolf prowling the grounds and some undead family members haunting the place. Then the one-legged servant (Donovan again) hobbles in and deposits a furry corpse on the carpet.

But he's shot the wrong wolf! And there's an Egyptian mummy knocking against the door of a sarcophagus! And why is the first wife's portrait dripping blood?

Ludlam's willy-nilly silliness comes from a smart place, working quotes from poems by Poe and lines from Macbeth and Hamlet into his version of B-movie dialogue. But in the WaterTower staging, director Terry Martin has overlooked or under-directed most of the script's opportunities for big laughs, cheating his pair of good actors out of some bravura hilarity. It's like watching a great Carol Burnett sketch — say, her Gone with the Wind take-off, which is referenced by Ludlam — directed in the style of a Pinter drama. Including the awkward pauses.

Yes, the many costume changes required in Irma Vep don't happen lickety-split in the WaterTower production. With two men playing all eight characters, the illusion falters when the audience is forced to wait too long after the actor in the maid's uniform exits and doesn't immediately enter through the French doors dressed as the man of the house in hunting tweeds. We ought to be astounded by the cast's feats of presto-change-o. But at the performance reviewed, timing was sluggish, with actors left onstage alone in scene after scene, having to vamp(ire) until the other guy finally appeared. Come on, dressers, you're working with Velcro back there, not tiny hooks and eyes.

It is nice to see former Dallas leading man Regan Adair back on a stage again (he absconded to New York last year). He's a dandy comic actor who knows his way around accents (high British status and low), and he does funny little bits with his multiple roles as the housekeeper, lovestruck lord and Lord knows who else. Adair's tiny flourishes, like the toss of his bewigged head every time he exits as Jane Twisden, are timed to the millisecond.

Design elements work against Adair's co-star, Bryan Donovan. Costumer Michael Robinson has put him in sloppily constructed clothes and ratty wigs for his male and female personae. That Gone with the Wind dress he dons as Lady Enid, which in other productions brings down the house on its entrance, here resembles a cheap patio umbrella that's been through a nasty typhoon.

No one is credited in the program for the terrible makeup job, which slaps odd gray pallor and black smudges on both men's cheeks, leaving their pink necks undisturbed. They look cadaverous or ...

Rather like the stars of The Addams Family, now available for open-casket viewing at the Music Hall at Fair Park. After euthanizing its 2010 Broadway run starring Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth — and eventually Brooke Shields, aka the "show killer" — the musical's writers, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (who wrote Jersey Boys), decided to toss the old script and start anew for the road tour. Sadly, they kept the part of the storyline they'd transplanted from La Cage aux Folles. Wednesday Addams, daughter of elegantly ghoulish Gomez and Morticia, falls in love with a "normal" guy and brings his parents home to meet hers. She begs her clan of oddballs to behave for company, but little brother Pugsly slips a Mickey to the visiting mom, spoiling the evening.

A new central plot conflict has been added wherein Gomez (played by Douglas Sills) and Morticia (clunky Sara Gettelfinger) have a fight and make up with what's supposed to be a sexy tango. (It isn't; you'll see better footwork by Bristol Palin on Dancing with the Stars.) And there are new songs, including an opening number (snap, snap) explaining the Addams' sepulchral weirdness for those who need a reminder that it's all based on the 1960s TV series and the two later movie comedies inspired by cartoonist Charles Addams' characters.

Cut after the Broadway production is a love song from the second act, "In the Arms," that was sung by Wednesday's fiance's mother (Gaelen Gilliland) to a giant puppet squid with which she'd just had sex. We get the squid-free version, darn it. (We should protest with signs saying "Octopi this!")

The jokes in The Addams Family are strictly stale calamari.

"Do you have a little girls' room?" asks the normal mom.

"We used to," answers Gomez in his cheesy Latin accent. "But we let them all go."

More child-abduction humor, please, said no one ever.

Uncle Fester (Blake Hammond) strums a banjo and croons to the moon. Lurch (Zachary James) looms large. Pugsly (13-year-old Patrick D. Kennedy) briefly erases the gloom with his showy front-of-curtain solo, "What If." Cousin ITT appears for a second or two. As the deadpan Wednesday, Cortney Wolfson sings loud enough to wake the dead. Just not quite loud enough to bring this patched-together Frankenstein of a musical to life.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner