The horror of Nearly Naked Theatre's Monster has nothing to do with the macabre action of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the story on which this play is based. It hasn't anything to do with the inferior production, the sluggish acting, the slow and dull-witted direction. The real nightmare here is how very much Monster looks like what one might expect to find at some theater other than this one.
Not every Nearly Naked production has been flawless, to be sure. The company, which last week launched its 17th season, has had — like any other small company — its share of missteps. But even its blunders (an especially overwrought production of Night of the Iguana starring Joseph Kremer comes to mind) have looked like something bigger than just another low-budget play draped in torn sheets and covered in paint splatters. For nearly two decades, Nearly Naked's artistic investment has been greater than what it could afford, artistically and financially. Until Monster, which made me wonder: Am I sitting in a converted storefront in a Glendale strip mall?
This production is so lifeless and flawed that criticizing it seems churlish and unkind. Its story hews closely to Shelley's original, in which the monster is thoughtful and more human than its maker, posing questions about the existence of God and what it means to be alive. Bell's adaptation resides in its own shadow; he's written a play about quiet emotions expressed in ghoulish settings. First-time director Kenneth Anthony might have honored Bell's subtle intentions with a cast of experienced actors, but he's filled his stage with amateurs for whom nuance is a new challenge. There are no performances in Monster, only attempted performances. It's clever, and hopefully intentional, to have Frankie Marchi play Victor Frankenstein with silent film star bravado. His bug-eyed responses and soundless emoting recall our most familiar Frankenstein monster: the mute one created by Boris Karloff in the 1931 movie version. The creature in Anthony's version is played by Matthew Wetzell, whose handful of better moments are overshadowed by his senseless body makeup. The actor appears to have fallen into the same paint bucket used to splatter the impossibly sloppy set design, made quickly and cheaply from old bed sheets splashed with grays and browns.
Lousy productions happen to decent playhouses, but anyone aware of Nearly Naked's consistently far-reaching past work (its Angels in America surpassed a pair of local Equity productions; its Equus was a sold-out stunner; its production of Devil Boys from Beyond was deemed, by its author Buddy Thomas, to be "better than the New York production") might worry about the company's artistic future. Nearly Naked's slate of plays for 2016 include some real challenges, among them Thomas' Wonderland Wives and Brian Yorkey's complex Next to Normal. One hopes this former stalwart ditches its new affection for first-time directors and under-talented casts, and returns to its former glory.
Monster continues through Sunday, November 29, at Phoenix Theatre, 100 E. McDowell Road. Call 602-254-2151 or visit www.nearlynakedtheatre.org.