Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde is an immensely clever and entertaining abbreviation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s story, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. Now at the SoHo Playhouse, this lively feat of comic imagination and innovation is extracted from the well-worn story of a man driven to separate and control his two basic and innate natures: good and evil. This wonderful collaboration is written and performed by its two creators, Burt Grinstead and Anna Stromberg, with Ms. Stromberg directing and Mr. Grinstead designing the sound. A dynamic duo, indeed!
In this version of the classic story, what prompts Dr. Jekyll to pursue a study to find a way to separate good and evil is the excruciating beheading of his brother. Several attempts to sever the head and the ridiculous female spectator beside Jekyll set the tone for the entire show. Jekyll then seeks funding and is rejected by the father of the woman he can’t quite win despite his deep feelings for her. He concocts a drink from herbs from America, and of course his intentions backfire. Dr. Jekyll is consumed by his base desires in the form of Mr. Hyde.
The remarkable puzzle set of black blocks and step units transforms itself from a basement lab to blooming garden to a seedy hotel, and anywhere else the story takes us. Grinstead and Stromberg move the story of the tormented Jekyll and all his encounters as the doctor and the demon Hyde with sheer, heartfelt alacrity. To a certain extent the velocity of story and character impersonations avoids the complexity of Jekyll’s environment and dual nature, but somehow that doesn’t matter. We are always caught up in the melodramatic joy of it all.
Outstanding is Mr. Grinstead’s enthralling transformation into Hyde. In the fusion of the farcical and the tragic is this play’s true humor. As such, it was not really possible to be moved by Jekyll’s torment, nor really fearful of his demonic Hyde. Ms. Stromberg’s transformational energy into at least 10 characters adds to this momentum. All were meticulously distinctive, especially her Poole, Jekyll’s loyal servant, and Sarah, the demure yet not too docile sweetheart. The artistic statement of Grinstead and Stromberg’s company, Blanket Fort, wants us to appreciate this fast-paced and edgy theatre. Which we do with great appreciation.
The youthful exuberance and excitement for this production by the SoHo Playhouse staff is evident from the moment one enters the theater. On the opening press night, the Playhouse decided to enhance the pre-performance with an open bar on the basement level of its home on Van Dam Street, a roaming photographer and a tarot card reader for the audience, as well as a post-performance meet and greet with Grinstead and Stromberg. The program stated a running time of 80 minutes, but the show zipped by in 70. All this pre-show hoopla which lasted 20 minutes may have encouraged the breakneck speed of the play on this evening. Brevity is the soul of this witty Jekyll and Hyde.