The promise of better living through chemistry is put to the acid test in Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, a sincere, occasionally scary, and often jovial adaptation of the classic 1886 Robert Louis Stevenson tale. The play won the 2018 Fringe Encore Series Outstanding Production Award and now returns to the Soho Playhouse for a six-week victory lap.
In this minimalist staging, two actors portray all of the roles. Burt Grinstead plays the debonair Jekyll, who ingests an ill-mixed vial of chemicals and herbs to turn into the devilish Hyde. And Anna Stromberg, who cowrote the piece with Grinstead, and who also serves as director, performs all the other characters, a half dozen or so men and women ranging from Jekyll’s love interest to his maid to his professorial colleagues.
It’s a foggy day in London town as the show begins, and in the haze stands Jekyll, alongside an excitable woman, in attendance at a public execution. It’s Jekyll’s murderous brother who is being put down and the botched procedure, involving multiple axe chops to the neck, leaves an indelible scar on the good doctor’s psyche, if not the woman’s. “Oo. Goodness me. That was marvelous, wasn’t it?” she trumpets.
The action then jumps ahead two years to find Jekyll preparing to address his colleagues in an effort to secure university funding for his studies. Having concluded that men are equal parts virtue and sin, he is hell-bent on finding a way to “cure evil,” and in one of the evening’s several biblical nods, proclaims, “Jesus casts demons out of madmen. I propose that with the right combination of chemicals we can cast evil from madmen as well.” His peers are doubtful, though, and deny him his research funds. This drives Jekyll not only to drink, but to concoct. After a night of intoxicated solitude, he heads down to his lab and mixes up an experimental serum that he hopes will bring purification. Instead, he gets a splitting headache, in the most literal sense of the term. His torso seizes, his legs spasm and a top hat sprouts upon his head as he becomes Hyde in plain sight.
The elixir is a handy theatrical trigger, but the play’s real firing mechanism involves its consideration of duality; not only good vs. evil, but religion vs. science (“Wisdom comes from the fear of God, not attempting to play God.”) and, especially, animal instinct vs. Victorian primness. Jekyll wouldn’t hurt a fly but has no game with the ladies, even when the beautiful apple of his eye, Sarah, throws herself at him. Hyde, who eventually can transform at the mere sight of nature in the raw—a cat eating a bird in this case—carries with him a “wet animal” smell that makes a woman he seduces weak in the knees, but which a policeman describes as “putrid.” In this prefeminist era, it is Jekyll who blacks out and has only vague memories, at best, of days-long disappearances and hotel room assignations, with the women mere afterthoughts. It’s a #me-just-me moment.
The first half hour of the production is sometimes lumbering in its exposition, and Grinstead struggles to make the mild-mannered Jekyll interesting. But his Hyde is worth the wait. Indeed, the worse his medical condition grows, the better the play becomes, as he dashes out into the house to scare audience members and bangs around on stage, his tongue flapping out of his mouth. As the work plummets to its fatal conclusion, the good man and the dark villain inescapably drawn together in a moral crisis, Grinstead succeeds in forging a winningly tragic hero.
Stromberg, meanwhile, makes an excellent foil. Each of her characters is defined by a quick prop or costume change—a lace fan here, an apron there, or slight variation in her accent or mannerisms. She is also in charge of most of the humor, including self-referential pokes at her multiple roles. When Jekyll remarks to her hotel maid that she looks a lot like Sarah, Stromberg deadpans, “I suppose I could see that.” Her direction is fast-paced and crystal clear, helped along by the purposefully melodramatic sound and lighting design, by Grinstead and Carter Ford, respectively. Sarah enters to the sweetest music imaginable, while Hyde rises to sinister chords, with the entire stage turning a ghastly green. Stromberg and Grinstead named their production company Blanket Fort, and the set design echoes that playfulness with a thrown-together casualness barely masking the dark interiors.
Blanket Fort Entertainments’ Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde runs through May 26 at Soho Playhouse (15 Vandam St.). Performances are at 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. For tickets and information, visit sohoplayhouse.com or call (212) 691-1555.