Mention the name Charles Ludlam, even to New York theater junkies, and you’re likely to be met with blank stares. When you give hints about his trademarks — cross-dressing, elaborate costumes, campy parody of noir Hollywood films, zany plot twists, double entendres — you’re likely to get, “Oh, you mean Charles Busch?”
In the 1970s and 1980s, Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company was a flamboyant, bold force in the downtown theater scene. Tragically, the avant-garde dramatist died of complications from AIDS in 1987 at age 44 in St. Vincent’s Hospital. In Ludlam’s obituary in the New York Times, the Public Theater’s Joe Papp said, “We lost an extraordinary artist who was just on his way to a tremendous breakthrough in theater and opera.”
And now one of his most popular plays, “The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful,” is being revived by the Red Bull Theater company at the Lortel Theatre, not far from Ridiculous Theatrical’s former home in Sheridan Square (now the Axis Theatre). The clever comedy is directed by none other than Everett Quinton, who not only co-starred in the original with Ludlam but was, in the parlance of the day, his “longtime companion.”
Then the main theater critic for the Times, Frank Rich, hailed “Irma Vep” among the best plays of 1984. But does the work hold up after 30 years?
Well, it depends on your taste for that brand of borderline-corny comedy. If you relish a mélange of Shakespeare, Hitchcock, Victorian melodrama, gothic romance, and soap opera — like your favorite skit from “The Carol Burnett Show” — then this is the play for you.
The goofy spoof is a “full-length quick-change act” where two nimble performers (Arnie Burton and Robert Sella) play all roles, male and female.
The plot is everything you’d expect from a penny dreadful — those cheap, lurid stories first published in the 19th century. The action, set “between the wars,” begins in the library drawing room of Mandacrest (think Manderley from “Rebecca”), an ancient estate near Hempstead Heath. Naturally, it’s a dark and stormy night.
It’s been three years since Lady Hillcrest, aka Irma Vep, has tragically died, and now Lord Edgar Hillcrest (Sella) has taken a new bride, Lady Enid (Burton). Jane (Sella), the longtime maid, has trouble warming up to the new mistress of the house. Irma’s portrait hangs over the fireplace mantel, as if she’s still watching — and judging.
Also on hand is Nicodemus Underwood (Burton), the leering caretaker who clomps around with a wooden leg (he was mauled by a wolf) and has the hots for Jane. When strange events occur, like werewolf and vampire attacks, he and Lord Edgar try to solve the mystery. There’s even a ludicrous excursion to a tomb in Giza, Egypt, where the answer might be buried.
It will surprise no one that the 3,000-year-old mummy comes alive or that the name Irma Vep turns out to be an anagram. But that doesn’t make the piece any less delectable.
Not that the dizzying plot really matters. It’s all about the astounding performances and how swiftly the actors can shuck off their sport coats, riding pants, and boots and don an evening gown and wig in the blink of an eye. Burton honed his skills in Broadway’s “The 39 Steps,” another quick-change Hitchcock spoof.
And like “The Carol Burnett Show,” the funniest bits are when something goes awry, forcing the actors to improvise or break character, cracking an unscripted smile.
Ludlam’s arch dialogue — gushing with mentions of moors and heather and howling winds — is a both a witty send-up and an homage to the gothic noir films that Hollywood churned out in the mid-20th century. Certain passages are lifted from classics like Poe’s “The Raven” and Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Many jokes land with a groan-worthy thud, which may well be by design.
“They cling to the dead a long time at Mandacrest,” emotes Lady Enid. Jane responds balefully, “Nay, I think it’s the dead that cling to us.”
John Arnone has concocted a perfectly sinister manor drawing room crammed with curios and mismatched furniture, made even creepier with Peter West’s lighting and Brandon Wolcott’s sound effects.
The ridiculously brilliant “Irma Vep” was Ludlam’s 25th work and ranks as one of the most produced plays across the globe, partly due to his skill in melding high and low culture. This fine revival makes us consider what other wonders the gifted dramatist might have created if he weren’t taken from us in his prime.
THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP: A PENNY DREADFUL | Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St., btwn. Bleecker & Hudson Sts. | Through May 11: Tue.-Wed. at 7:30 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $60 at redbulltheater.com or 212-352-3201
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