Utilizing the aisles during a play to effectively enter the audience’s space is not uncommon. But in Infinite Abyss’ production of “Fright Nights” at the Wilton Theatre Factory, the practice is not an occasional flourish or a gimmick. It’s an essential element of a production that simply cannot be contained to the limited stage of a black-box theater.
Actors reveal plot points from nooks just beyond the back row of seats. They clatter down the stairs in states of panic, or chase each other up them. At one point, I had to contort myself to avoid physical contact with a snarling werewolf (you know, another day at the theatre); at another, I was grazed by an actor’s trench coat. You’re never supposed to leave for the bathroom during an act, but in this case, should you take that chance, it could well be a hazardous journey.
As it should be. “Fright Night” isn’t Neil Simon; it’s an adaptation of writer-director Tom Holland’s 1985 cult horror film of the same name, and if we didn’t feel a little uncomfortable—our passivity as spectators a little disrupted now and then—the play wouldn’t be doing its job.
For Infinite Abyss Artistic Director Erynn Dalton, whose company enjoys exploring the darker side of the theatrical experience, “Fright Night” is perfectly on-brand. As director, she walks a fraying tonal tightrope of horror and camp, expressing a contagious affection for the movie and its era through details both foundational and granular. Given the inherent restrictions of re-creating a cinematic genre on a stage, this “Fright Night” has industry and imagination to spare.
The script, penned by James Michael Shoberg, is reverentially faithful to its long-canonized source material. High school student Charley Brewster (Matthew Salas) discovers that his new next-door neighbor, Jerry Dandridge (Andrew King), is a stealth vampire, luring prostitutes into his lair for nightly feedings. When nobody will believe him—not his mother (Dalton), nor his moody girlfriend Amy (Amanda Ortega) nor a disinterested police detective (Willy Le Sante)—Charley seeks the counsel and services of Peter Vincent (Joseph Zettelmaier), a recently laid-off horror host who may have played a vampire hunter on TV but in real life is far from a suburban Van Helsing. It’s up to Charley, a reluctant Peter, and eventually Amy and Charley’s friend and horror aficionado “Evil” Ed Thompson (Tyler Charles Kane) to expose the treachery next door.
Following a more-or-less cinematic structure, many of the scenes are wisp-short, and the production’s pacing sometimes struggles to keep up; the scene changes can be so long, and so plentiful, that momentum is occasionally blunted. But even these idle moments are elevated by a curated soundtrack that places audiences squarely in the narrative’s texture through instantly recognizable cuts by Bauhaus, Echo & the Bunnymen, Queen, Motley Crue and others and, in the slower-burning second act, creepy modern covers of ‘80s favorites.
The set design, credited to B.A.R. Scenic, is a geeked-out trove of horror miscellany. Charley Brewster’s bedroom includes posters, stickers and one-sheets, a large tapestry celebrating Poe’s “The Raven,” and dangling orange lights suggesting, as Ministry once put it, that every day is Halloween. Dandridge’s adjoining lair is more gothic in nature, complete with crackling faux-fireplace. Individual props and costumes are also rich in period detail and humor, from the “Frankie Says Relax” pin sported by Amy to a jumbo inflatable telephone and boombox. Tyler Charles Kane’s getup, as Ed Thompson, includes spiky purple hair, a denim jacket festooned with safety pins, and a studded dog collar around his neck.
The performances run an engaging gamut from excellent to serviceable. On the more adequate side, Le Sante doesn’t make for a particularly persuasive cop, and fares better in a couple of other brief parts he embodies. King’s Dandridge channels his character’s brutality and menace but is less adept at the seductiveness and charisma long associated with vampire lore.
Kane, on the other hand, visibly has a blast playing horror fanboy Thompson; he’s gifted with the show’s funniest lines, all of which land. As Amy, Ortega excels in an emotional gamut coalescing in a truly terrifying vampiric turn. Zettelmaier expertly channels his inner Vincent Price in a performance carefully modeled on the 1980s vanguard of horror hosts.
But Salas’ Charley Brewster is both the lynchpin and, in a way, the ringer of this cast. It’s a humorless performance, which in this case is a compliment. He has no quarter for camp, and no time for the mastication of scenery. Surrounded by a world spinning ever faster out of control, he’s often the only person to see reality as it is, and Salas’ paranoid groundedness—a delicate, even oxymoronic combination—allows for the real-world identification this supernatural nightmare needs.
In short, expect “Fright Night” to keep you both amused and on the edge of your seat—an edge that may well be shared by a cast member at any given time.
“Fright Night” from Infinite Abyss runs through Aug. 6 at the Foundry at Wilton Theatre Factory, 2306 N. Dixie Highway, Wilton Manors. Call 954/849-8440 or visit infinite-abyss.org.