Frankenstein Upstairs, the new play from The Honeycomb Trilogy's Mac Rogers, is an ungainly creature. Part modern relationship dramedy, part updated gothic horror, the show is worth it for spectacular performances. What would you do if Dr. Frankenstein was your neighbor?
Rogers' new play, following his excellent three-part alien-invasion epic, hinges on this supposition. With Dr. Victoria Frankenstein, effortlessly illuminated by Kristen Vaughan, Rogers has made one of his most enduring contributions to the stage. Vaughan, last seen as a dying mother in Rogers' Blast Radius, is effervescent here. Her Frankenstein – prim, polite, Swiss, and increasingly creepy – is a wonder to behold. Equally vibrant is Diana Oh, who shines in early scenes as the free-spirited web designer Marisol. Both actors are so compelling that you would follow them down any rabbit-hole, and Rogers' is complex and has many twists both expected and from left field.
The strength of the early premise – that a modernized Frankenstein lurks upstairs, preparing for a new monster – is watered down by the too-hip setting. Marisol and Sophie (Autumn Dornfeld), a dysfunctional young Brooklyn odd-couple, are wondering if they should merge their social media businesses into a greater whole. Their buzzword-filled world is ruffled only by Marisol's friend Taylor (Rob Maitner), a blind writer who writes a mix of Anita Blake and Harlequin under a female pseudonym — and the introduction of Dr. Frankenstein. It's difficult to sympathize with the high-strung Sophie and chilled-out Marisol's early relationship. They seem so at odds, and so uniquely privileged (who can afford to live/work out of a DUMBO loft with a single web client?), that the inevitable tragic decline of one, and selfless heroism of the other, feels disingenuous. These two need couples therapy, but they get Dr. Frankenstein instead.
The play then veers from timely domestic drama into science fiction and horror tropes. It doesn't disappoint on horror-show visuals, a testament to special effects by Stephanie Cox-Williams, and the action moves exquisitely, thanks to the actors and the deft touch of director Jordana Williams, a frequent Rogers collaborator. The clever set design by Sandy Yalkin turns The Secret Theatre's cozy space in Queens, New York City, into an urban loft that can become an operating theater. Amanda Jenks' costumes are subtle and vibrant as necessary, with Dr. Frankenstein appearing like everyone's dream of a chic mad scientist. The sound and lightning (by Jeanne E. Travis and Jennifer Linn Wilcox) are impeccable, with themed indie music transitioning scenes, zaps of illuminating electricity, and ominous lighting flashing past the windows.
Vaughan's role cannot be overstated. Her performance is an event, and I feel privileged to have seen it. By turns elegantly mysterious and socially awkward, the rebooted Vic Frankenstein is the draw and strongest pillar of the play. The rest of the plot is designed to slowly reveal and unravel the enigmatic doctor's motivations. This it does (though rather too slowly), and we come to know a Frankenstein who is a hybrid made of Mary Shelley's doctor, cinematic interpretations, and Rogers' reimagining. The playwright's obvious love of the source material and genre shines through, though you should probably brush up on your Shelley before the show. Audience members unfamiliar with the literary classic will miss the point and poignancy of several key scenes, which feels unfortunate.
The rest of the strong cast does well: Dornfeld's Sophie, a harried type-A type who is the closest the play has to a heroine, has moments of greatness, including a scene with a whiteboard that is hard to forget. Maitner's Taylor is a creative and sympathetic character, played with over-the-top tenacity. Oh, as Marisol, has a charismatic force impossible to look away from, and we are always hungry to see more of her. We know from the big picture on the playbill that Marisol will end up on Dr. Frankenstein's slab. But it takes a good while to get her there, and while her reinanimated form holds some surprises, we, like Sophie, miss the old Marisol.
It's a strange phenomenon that Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein has become conflated in pop culture with his creation. Most hear “Frankenstein” and think of the groaning, shuffling behemoth with bolts in his neck from B-movies. Stranger still is that Shelley's Creature, an articulate, philosophizing simulacrum in the text, has been reduced to an inhuman beast in public consciousness. It is a missed opportunity of Frankenstein Upstairs that the nature and implications of the monster are not further unpacked. Rogers is a bold and effective writer, and the play has a lot that it wants to say about Shelley's primary themes – construction of identity and family, mortality, playing God, love and loss – but these become muddled by too many scenes of set-up and build-up, and revelations that come fast and furiously, when they are at last revealed.
The misplaced emphasis on the characters' personal problems bogs down a production that wants to crackle with fantastical possibility. There is a late twist that delivers on shock value, but feels so gratuitous that I am still collecting my jaw from the floor. While Rogers' commitment to featuring unconventional female characters must be applauded, the girl-on-girl crimes of the last act are overwrought. It is the conviction and dedication of the talented cast and crew that galvanizes the play's disparate parts, and keeps Frankenstein Upstairs alive.
"Frankenstein Upstairs," presented by Gideon Productions, runs at The Secret Theatre through June 30th (44-02 23rd Street, Queens, NY www.secrettheatre.com); tickets are $18/$15 for students and seniors. Photos by Deborah Alexander.