Review: “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” at Elmwood Playhouse

John P. McCarthy 

OnStage New York Critic

Nyack, NY – Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella about a London physician struggling to tame the beast within (“Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”) has been adapted for the screen numerous times. But stage versions are few and far between. A drama by T.R. Sullivan premiered in 1887 and was fitfully revived up until 1907. More recently and successfully, the musical “Jekyll and Hyde” had a long Broadway run beginning in 1997. 

To get an inkling of why the source material has been so resistant to theatrical treatment, consider Jeffrey Hatcher’s play “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” It was commissioned and staged by Arizona Theatre Company in 2008 and a production by Nyack’s Elmwood Playhouse opened last Friday night. 

Despite the estimable efforts of director Debra Lee Failla and her colleagues, the story doesn’t translate especially well. In a nutshell, Stevenson’s story is excessively baroque, featuring too many narrators, storytelling devices, and perspectival layers. A second challenge involves how to depict the transformation between the two titular figures and the story’s fundamental violence and implied gore. Practically speaking, it’s harder to pull off horror on the stage than it is on film. 

Hatcher’s chief response to both problems is ingenious, though not entirely successful. Multiple actors portray the fiendish Edward Hyde – four of the performers in the six-person ensemble, to be exact. This has a simplifying effect, boiling the story down to one broad theme: Every human being has a dark, ugly side. Each of us has the potential to behave in a savage manner, to let our sinister and irrational impulses take over, however fleetingly. Like Dr. Jekyll, we are all divided to some extent. Good and evil are constantly at war within us. 

While this broad observation about human nature is difficult to gainsay, it leads to thornier questions. For instance, what explains the propensity of some people to behave in a fiendish manner and others not? Why do some let the dark side, as it were, dominate? Hatcher’s play doesn’t have much to say about these sorts of issues. To be fair, it would be asking a lot to expect him to shed more light on them than Stevenson did. And yet, the very idea that Victorians were preoccupied with such puzzles – an essential theme of the novella – gets lost in Hatcher’s version. (Several informative displays in the lobby do provide some historical context and are very welcome.) 

Regarding the changes Hatcher institutes, having four actors share the role of Hyde (in addition to portraying eighteen other characters) doesn’t make the convoluted plot any easier to follow, especially at the outset. The conceit is also undermined to a degree because three of the four performers appear only briefly as Hyde. The mutton-chopped Neil Battinelli plays him most often, and most menacingly. Like many writers who have adapted the story for the screen, Hatcher adds a female character not found in the book – in this case, a hotel chambermaid who forms a romantic bond with Hyde. Rather than obfuscate the story or come off as a concession to mainstream tastes, this departure from Stevenson’s vision feels organic and necessary.

When it comes to conjuring a foreboding atmosphere and animating the story from a theatrical point of view, Elmwood’s production is first-rate. The design work is excellent -- starting with a soot-black set that succinctly evokes the grimy, gas-lit streets of Victorian London. The central component of David Julin’s design is a red door and doorframe that gets wheeled around the stage to delineate the various indoor and outdoor spaces in the play’s twenty-eight scenes (nineteen in Act I, nine in Act II). The other notable feature of the set is a grouping of words painted in cursive on the mansard ceiling at the back of the stage. Presumably they are taken from the many letters and other documents that figure in the story. Without doubt, they signal pertinent motifs: “Morality, master, kill, horror, soul, rage, madman, mind, fate, and bestial.” 

Mike Gnazzo’s lighting complements the scenic design and excels when Jekyll ingests a glowing neon potion in his laboratory. The costumes assembled by Janet Fenton are spot-on and, last but far from least, Ben McCormack’s spooky electronic music and eerie sound effects are extremely effective — echoing Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, which helped make “The Exorcist” so unforgettable.

As for how “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” rates as a piece of gothic horror, it can be described as schizophrenic. On the one hand, there’s an aura of dread, a fair amount of colorfully euphemistic references to Hyde’s depraved behavior, and several non-explicit displays of the carnage he enacts. There’s also some frank discussion, in a clinical setting, about the private parts of one of his female victims. 

On the other hand, the only truly bloody interlude – the autopsy of a man who’s been beaten to death – is played for laughs. Indeed, there’s a surprising amount of humor overall. It’s not clear how much of this jocularity is embedded in Hatcher’s text and how much has been added by Debra Lee Failla. Without question, the director has given her actors (save John Ade as Dr. Jekyll, the only performer to play a single character throughout) the green light to mug and, by other means, milk certain bits for laughter. 

At several junctures the farcical notes almost reach Monty Python levels (some wobbly British accents add to this impression). But the troupe does pull back and allow the sober, serious qualities predominate. Still, this tonal bifurcation amplifies the suspicion that in order for the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to really speak to 21st-century audiences, it needs to be updated – packaged in a way that takes into consideration advances in psychology, medicine and criminology, to name just three areas, since the 19th century. 

Unlike the Victorians, we’re not concerned with keeping our public (rational and moral) and our private (unfettered by norms of any kind) personas separate. Authenticity is what we esteem above all else. Being two-faced is the ultimate crime, worse perhaps then letting your self run wild in society, committing all manner of heinous acts and causing indescribable yet meticulously chronicled damage. 

“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” runs through February 11, 2017 at Elmwood Playhouse, 10 Park Street Nyack, NY. Photo by Debra Lee Failla