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If the aim of The Vampires is to drain the life from us mortals, they've succeeded

Here's a classic story from the annals of Hollywood. Maybe you've heard it before, but it seems applicable here.

Date: Friday, Nov. 18, 1959. Place: New York City's Rivoli Theater. Beloved Infidel, starring Gregory Peck and Deborah Kerr, is set to premiere at noon. The movie looks lush, it's based on a bestselling memoir and 20th Century Fox has hyped it to the hills. Now the ornate theater lobby is filled with imperious studio executives, on hand to witness the clamoring crowd. But when the box office opens for business, only 10 people are in line. As the executive shuffle around in the empty lobby, one turns to another and asks, "How do they know?"

I recalled that anecdote as I sat waiting for the start of the opening-night performance of the City Players' production of The Vampires, wondering whether the sparse audience would outnumber the actors onstage and puzzling over how it is that audiences know -- even before the reviews come out, even before the word-of-mouth starts -- when to stay away.

Then there was this query: How could it be that once the performance began, as the director sat in the back of the theater laughing uproariously at the dim lines of this supposed comedy ("I don't need a divorce," the wife of a husband-turned-Dracula complains, "I need a tetanus shot"), the six of us in the front of the house totaled a stony sum of one -- count it, one -- snicker in the entire two acts? What were we missing?

For starters, we were missing a structured plot, something that might have helped involve us in the shenanigans onstage. Harry Kondoleon's The Vampires is yet another frantic farce about how screwed up America is. Here's the premise: Ian (Kevin Beyer) is a vitriolic New York theater critic; his lunkhead brother Ed (Tom Simmons, but think Randy Quaid as Cousin Eddie in National Lampoon's Vacation movies) is a would-be playwright. Ian has savaged a workshop production of Ed's new play, and now Ed is out for blood. Actually, both brothers crave blood, because Ian is convinced that he is a vampire.

Is Ian really a vampire? We never find out, because the author soon loses interest in that theme, leaves it dangling and begins to mix into his brew all sorts of undeveloped ingredients. Suddenly the play is about Ed's creepy heroin-shooting daughter (Hannah Joyce), who is also addicted to mystical spiritualism. And it's about the brothers' repressed, catfighting wives (Linda Meade and Teresa Doggett), and who really owns Ian's house, and some long-lost baby. What's a theatergoer to make of all this?

Perhaps we're supposed to remember that the title is plural, not singular. Perhaps the author is trying to imply that everyone onstage is a bloodsucker. Perhaps this play, which was produced unsuccessfully off-Broadway in 1984, was trying to comment on the me-first, "greed is good" Reagan years. But who would know, and who would care, when the script is so unfocused?

Look, there's nothing very edifying about beating up on a flop farce by a dead playwright. (Kondoleon died of AIDS seven years ago at the age of 39.) And there's little need to steer people away from a production they're already avoiding. But to the well-intentioned folks at City Players whose laudable goal is to restore that once-venerable institution to its former prestige, just one word of caution: Don't try to get so far ahead of your audience that you're the ones who end up being left behind.

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