Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 90 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Jeffrey Combs (RE-ANIMATOR, THE FRIGHTENERS, CASTLE FREAK, THE BLACK CAT). Written by Dennis Paoli (BLEACHER BUMS, GHOULIES II, THE DENTIST). Directed by Stuart Gordon (ROBOT JOX, DOLLS, FROM BEYOND).
I was lucky enough this year to spend a portion of my Halloween in the mad, increasingly inebriated company of the Nineteenth Century's greatest poet and weaver of macabre tales, Edgar Allan Poe. Upon a candlelight-flicker'd stage at Lincoln Center, Jeffrey Combs performed a special New York engagement of his one-man show, NEVERMORE.
I'm a longtime fan of Mr. Combs (one of the more committed, versatile actors of modern genre cinema) as well as the rest of the creative team: the director is the great Stuart Gordon (Mamet crony, Lovecraft-adapter extraordinaire, and the man who brought ROBOT JOX into the world) and the playwright is Dennis Paoli (rarely has an accomplished dramatist also penned the best GHOULIES movie, which was 2, by the way). It is difficult to describe the sheer power of this show– its resonance, its poetic value, its sense of history– but I shall try.
A candle journeys from its first lighting to its natural end as a whispery nub of extinguished wick. In between, Edgar Allan Poe exists. Even an intimate familiarity with Combs' body of work cannot prepare you for his transformation. Sure, a prosthetic nose, a wig, and a well-tailored costume are employed, but Combs becomes Poe. Even actively looking for it, you can only see glimpses of Combs beneath his performance, a glint in his eye here, an off-handed remark there. Combs is so profoundly in the moment that a patron's cough, the New York milieu, or Halloween night itself might bring forth an unexpected reaction, a measured improvisation.
Combs imbues Poe with a singsongy drawl and much humorous pomposity, then enshrouds him in madness and submerges him in the haze of drink. He reads aloud "The Tell-Tale Heart" ("The Tell-Tale Heart"....perhaps you've heard of it...?," he smartassedly inquires) with a manic energy which brings alive the story's humor and derangement as never before. He physically stomps upon the carpet in an approximation of the story's terrible, persistent heartbeat, injecting a sense of rhythm to the piece that one usually only associates with Poe's poetry. He reads a line like "ALL IN VAIN, because Death in approaching him had stalked with his black shadow before him and enveloped the victim" with a wet malevolence that drips morbidly from every syllable.
Claiming the birthright of his actor parents to 'perform,' Combs' Poe lays siege to the stage against the better judgment of unseen handlers, stagehands, and the poetess Sarah Helen Whitman in the audience, whom Poe was courting at the time (in the wake of his wife's death). He rants against Longfellow, pokes at the Transcendentalists, and razzes Washington Irving. He brags at length about his career at West Point and his achievement of swimming the James River. But a bottle of Rye (at first swigged surreptitiously, then guzzled out in the open) causes the evening's events to grow increasingly and exponentially unhinged. "WHOOOOOOOOPS," he blurts as he gulps down the sauce again and again and again, promenading about the stage like an irrepressible beast. His ever-roaming, drunken tongue practically becomes a character in and of itself. He stumbles and staggers and teeters and falls; he earns our applause through the Herculean act of "standing up." He straddles a music stand like a horse, amuses himself by playing with a length of his ruffly shirt caught in a gap through his unbuttoned vest, battles the forces of gravity with great slapstick physicality, and shrugs it all off with a mad, wheezy cackle. There's an insane, boozy recitation of "The Bells," whereupon Combs hurls his arms about and boogies across the stage, flinging himself and suspenders alike with reckless abandon, ultimately whimpering in the aisle, wounded and bitter, but not quite broken. And for all the humor, there is a tremendous emotive core, perhaps best exemplified by the air of melancholy that results when a dried flower falls out from between pressed pages, a sudden and unexpected reminder of his dead wife. And I can't even begin to chronicle the profundity of Combs' reading of "The Raven," a reading which transports you face-to-face with the sullen, saggy-eyed countenance from the famous daguerreotype by which most of us know Poe's face.
NEVERMORE is a masterful work. Stuart Gordon's sure, even-handed direction is capable of handling all of Poe's heights and depths and tonal shifts; Dennis Paoli's script (with much assistance from Poe's prose and poetry) is in turns hilarious and heart-wrenching; and Jeffrey Combs' performance is a staggering portrait of a majestic poet and a gutter philosopher, a man whose mind and body tested themselves against the maelstrom for only forty short years. I'm not sure when this show will be performed again, but if it's ever in your power to see it, you must.