Stage Review: Night of the Living Dead

In this post from last month, I previewed the stage adaptation of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, at the Stella Adler Theatre in Hollywood, based on a dress rehearsal. I finally went to see the complete show, and it is greatly improved, now that the pyrotechnics and effects are all in place.

The play essentially transfers the 1968 film by George Romero to the stage, which in some ways is relatively easy, because most of the action is set in a single isolated farm house. But in other ways the transition is not so smooth, because some crucial action does take place outside the house. The play’s solution is to use “security monitors” on either side of the stage to offer us glimpses of the action outside the house and to show us television broadcasts of action happening elsewhere.

The result – like the 1994 stage production of TOMMY and the more recent live version of THE LION KING – falls into the category of a “successful stunt” – that is, it manages to take a work created for another medium and transfer it successfully to within the confines of the live stage. You have to admire the ingenuity that went into pulling this off, but whether the stage adaptation actually manages to stand on its own remains an open question.

The play gets off to a strong start with the familiar scene in the cemetery between Johnny and Barbara, whose trip to lay a wreath on their father’s grave is interrupted by the intrusion of a ghoul who kills Johnny while Barbara escapes and takes shelter in a farm house. This initial momentum carries through the initial appearance of Ben, who arrives on the scene and begins boarding up the house to secure it from the other ghouls who are surrounding the isolated location.

Unfortunately, this action is not particularly dramatic: it takes too long, and the handful of boards never really make the house look secure. This is an excellent example of how film director George Romero used virtuoso cinematic technique to make the movie version work: lots of camera angles and close-ups quickly cut together to heighten the impact and to compress action into a short period of time that kept the pace moving forward.

The same holds true for the downtime that follows, when Ben and Barbara exchange monologues about their run-ins with the ghouls before taking shelter in the house. In the movies, close-ups underlined the soliloquoys, emphasizing the haunted expressions and pulling the audience into the memories being recounted.

After this lull, the play picks up with the appearance of the other characters, including the irritatable Mr. Cooper, who have been hiding in the cellar. The conflict between Ben and Cooper kicks off some fine dramatic sparks as they argue over the best course of action and attempt to devise a way to get out of the house and to a rescue station. The action swells to a wonderful climax as the ghouls ultimately overrun the house forcing sole survivor Ben to take refuge in the cellar. And the play nicely recreates the film’s famous downer ending – the shock still works, even when you know it’s coming.

The play nicely captures the action inside the house; the security monitors help remind us of the implacable menace lurking outside; and the makeup and effects create an effective sense of horror. But the handful of pieces of the film that the play leaves out, rob the story of some of its power. In particular, the deaths of Tom and Judy, while trying to get to a nearby truck, are greatly diminished: they are shown on the monitors being overwhelmed by the zombies just outside the house, instead of being trapped inside the truck and killed when it blows up near the gas pump. The action that followed in the film, of the ghouls devouring the dead couples entrails, blasted the 1968 film well beyond the level of simply being a well-made thriller; for the audience, the experienced careened into the realm of an unstoppable nightmare that sent a shiver cold enough to freeze the soul.

With this sequence seriously truncated, it is impossible for the stage version to match the impact of the film. Which is understandable, but the play does not offer much to compensate for this ommision. In the final assessment, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD may have attempted to be too faithful to its source, instead of re-imagining the action in a way that works in front of a live audience. In place of Romero’s black-and-white photography, wide-angle lenses, and furious montage, we a get a wonderfully designed set (with a spinning section to reveal action in the basement), some more colorful gore, and the immediacy of the actors performing right in front of us.

This works perfectly in the opening and closing attacks – which are probably more than enough to make the show worth the price of admission. But the lull in the middle leaves NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD feeling a bit like an embalmed classic, artificially preserved and shuffling with a semblance of life. Instead of just reviving the corpse virtually intact, the playwrite might have been better off it he’d taken the Frankenstein approach and stitched together something new from the best bits of the old.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD runs through December 3 at the Stella Adler Theatre – 6773 Hollywood Blvd, CA 90028. Performacnes are Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8:00pm, and Sunday at 2:00pm. Call 323-960-1056 for ticket information, or visit the website www.Plays411.com/livingdead.