George A. Romero's seminal 1968 film about reanimated flesh-eaters, Night of the Living Dead, seems ready-made for adaptation to the stage: set mostly in a single interior location, its action occurs over a compressed time frame, offering a compact story that can be squeezed within the confines of a proscenium arch; the fact that the film is in the public domain doesn't hurt, either. Over the course of the past two decades, there have been at least two stage versions in Los Angeles, one in the Stella Adler Theatre in 1968 and one in the Archway Theatre in 2017, both of which revealed not only the advantages but also the challenges of translating the story from the cinematic medium to live theatre.
The third time isn't quite the charm with the Group Rep's new production, written by Gus Krieger and directed by Drina Durazo, but it does try to nudge the material in new directions while staying true to its source. Enhanced with some very impressive production values (set design, lighting, music, and especially makeup), it's not a bad way to enjoy one last gasp of Halloween horror before surrendering to the advancing Thanksgiving holiday.
Set in 1968, the play gets off to a great start with a creepy voice over, ratcheted up to almost tongue-in-cheek levels, introducing the play, followed by the entrance of the living dead, who swarm down the aisles, immediately letting us know that the action will not all be confined to the stage. The famous scene of siblings Barbara and Johnny (Kate Faye and Sean Faye) laying a wreath in a cemetery before being attacked by a ghoul expands on Barbara's religious faith, deepening the character, and the fatal confrontation that follows is gripping.
However, once Barbara flees to the farmhouse, this adaptation runs into the same hurdles that slowed down previous theatrical versions: although the real drama of the situation plays out among the human characters locked inside, the story feels static without the action set pieces that took place outside; these acted like exclamation points in the film, punctuating the narrative with vivid, shocking imagery that clarified the stakes. The argument among the characters about whether to stay locked in the relative safety of the farmhouse cellar or hit the road looking for help is a lot more compelling when the threat has been made palpable.
To be sure, when the ghouls do appear (as in the original film, they are not called zombies), they are suitably terrifying: the makeup is brilliant (far better than what was seen in the film), and the performers provide a fairly wide range of how "all messed up" their characters are. The production also makes good use of sound and lighting effects to imply the off-stage action, but it's just not enough to reach the critical mass the story needs - at least not until near the finale, when the threat of the living dead extends inside the house, particularly in the memorably gruesome events in the basement, which show even a little bit more than the film did.
The ensemble cast is strong. The script strives to provide more depth for a couple of the more thankless roles: Judy (Cameron Kauffman), who is essentially just "the girlfriend" in the original, gets a long monologue; Barbara, who remains virtually comatose throughout the film, snaps back to awareness rather quickly. Both efforts are interesting, though they only partially pay off. Judy's monologue makes an interesting point (comparing the current situation to the plight of Jews hiding from persecution in the 1940s), but it goes on longer than we think the other characters would be willing to listen at that point.
Barbara's reawakening is part of new character arc that sees her going from faith to despair when confronted by the horrific events in a world gone mad; unfortunately, the arc is a bit wobbly. She starts off as the shell-shocked girl from the 1968 film before morphing into the kick-ass, can-do woman of the Romero-scripted 1990 Night of the Living Dead remake, then spiritually collapses into nihilism under the weight of the situation near the end. Again, it's an interesting take, but giving more to Barbara takes away from Ben (Marc Antonio Pritchett) without giving him much in return.
One quick note of praise for Matthew Jayson Cwern in the thankless role of Mr. Cooper. Though effective in the 1968 film, the character there was a one-note portrait of of anger and belligerence (even the original actor, Karl Hardman, has admitted: "There was no where to go with the performance"). Cwern plays Cooper like someone trying and failing to keep it together under unendurable circumstances - still an unsympathetic antagonist, but you kind of see him cracking around the edges.
As much as it is about living-dead flesh-eaters, the story of Night of the Living Dead is every bit as much about traditional society failing to work together in the face of a threat to its supremacy, as personified in the bickering conflict among the characters in the farmhouse. The Group Rep's stage adaptation captures this element, but the narrow focus on the interior drama omits too much of the visceral horror that drives the characters irrational responses.
Night of the Living Dead Rating
The Group Rep presents Night of the Living Dead, based on the 1968 film by George A. Romero. Adapted for the stage by Gus Krieger. Directed by Drina Durazo. Cast: Ashkhan Aref as Tom, Matthew Jayson Cwern as Mr. Cooper, Kate Faye as Barbara, Sean Faye as Johnny, Cameron Kauffman as Judy, Lisa McGee Mann as Mrs. Cooper, Marc Antonio Pritchett as Ben, Kaia Mann as Karen.
Night of the Living Dead continues at the Lonny Chapman Theatre on November 9 & 10, starting at 8pm on Saturday and 2pm on Sunday. The address is 10900 Burbank Boulevard North Hollywood, CA 91601. The theatre website is thegrouprep.com.