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It's Alive...Almost

A revival of an unpopular play shows why it was unpopular

Suzanne Young searches for eternal life in a tired old play.

By John Barry | Posted 11/4/2009

The Prevalence of Mrs. Seal

By Otis Bigelow

Through Nov. 15 at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre

The writer of The Prevalence of Mrs. Seal, currently running at the Spotlighters Theatre, isn't mentioned in the program. Intentionally or not, that tells you something about the play itself. It's the sort of idea a group of drinking buddies would come up with in Sardi's at closing time without really remembering who came up with it first: Characters transplant their brains and personae into other characters' bodies. The writer tried valiantly to stretch the premise into a two-hour spoof on horror movies: The result is a play that has the nerdy humor of a by-the-book farce that probably could, with a little tweaking, work effectively as a send-up of by-the-book farces.

One finds, after a little research, that the writer--Otis Bigelow--was a theater personality who had three plays to his credit, all of them drawing-room farces. The Prevalence first came out in 1981, was met with indifference, and, for the most part, lay buried for years. On one level, you have to admire director Michael Spellman for taking a chance on what he calls an "overlooked gem" in the director's notes. He does what he can to help it rise again. And the cast seems to enjoy themselves. But it's easy to tell why it was overlooked.

The play opens on a stormy night at the estate of Mrs. Theodora Seal (Suzanne Young), who has offered a billion dollars to anyone who can give her the key to eternal life. She lives there with her ward, the young flapper Belinda (Elisa Dugan). The people holed up in her estate include would-be takers Smith (Daniel Douek), a vampire, and Miss Pilgrim (Jessica Feldman), a seer. But none has the right thing for Mrs. Seal. She ultimately decides to offer the job to Dr. Porteous (Shawn Anthony), a mad scientist, who has actually created a sort of monster of his own, named Igor (Chris Homberg). Over the course of the two-hour play, characters are taken to the operating chamber, and, for various reasons, get mixed up with one another as their brains get passed around.

The movement and dialogue are largely intended to give the actors the chance to step into one another's skins, which gives the play the energy of an enjoyable acting exercise. As Mrs. Seal, Young maintains an air of authority over the proceedings, and also manages to transform adequately into the personae of Igor and her young lawyer, played by Alan Berlett. And whatever the shortcomings of the play itself, the castmembers seem to enjoy themselves as best they can. As the Count Dracula double, Daniel Douek revels in spooky double entendres as he changes personalities with Dr. Porteous. As Belinda, Elisa Dugan gives a captivating performance as the archetype of a Depression-era flapper. Frank Vince offers a characteristically on-the-spot performance as Murdstone, the distributor of the Seal fortune. Murdstone, less weighed down than others by typical gothic-horror stereotypes, seems free to turn into an actual character.

This revival, for all its drawbacks, is well suited to Spotlighters. The small theater gives the play a comfortable, in-the-round stage for the actors who--along with the audience--seem to be stuck in a haunted house and making the best of it. The period set by Stephanie O'Donnell and Spellman's blocking give the play some fluidity. But in the end, bringing a drawing-room comedy out of the grave is a lost cause.

Despite the cast's heroic efforts, The Prevalence of Mrs. Seal is still a 2009 reprisal of a 1981 play that, even then, was making fun of an out-of-date genre, far less effectively than Mel Brooks had done in 1974 with Young Frankenstein. The coffin opens, but Prevalence doesn't quite rise from the grave.

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