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Theater review: 'Nevermore...' at Steve Allen Theater

July 30, 2009 |  4:15 pm

Nevermore photo 1 Over the years, one-man shows about Edgar Allan Poe have proliferated with the regularity of telltale heartbeats. John Astin, in recent years, has made something of a career of playing Poe. Every Halloween, Poe interpreters wriggle out of the woodwork. There’s something about the doomed author, who struggled in miserable poverty before meeting a mysterious end at age 40, that lends itself to the solo show format.

Now, Jeffrey Combs, star of the cult classics “Re-Animator” and “The Frighteners,” leaps into the fray with “Nevermore…” at the Steve Allen Theater. In assessing this new play, written by Dennis Paoli and directed by Stuart Gordon, it’s hard not to seem gushy.  Suffice to say that Combs’ performance is definitive, so full-blown he does not seem to be so much playing Poe as channeling him.

First, there is Combs’ physical resemblance to Poe, a doppelganger-exactitude that gives one shivers.  Then, there is his physicality – those grand, histrionic gestures that are so perfectly in period for Poe’s more grand and histrionic era.  Then, there’s that hint of a Southern accent, the holdover from the orphaned Poe’s rearing in Virginia.

Yet those external trappings are just the tinder beneath Combs’ bonfire performance. In Paoli’s beautifully constructed play, based largely on Poe’s own writings, Combs never gets bogged down in the lugubriousness that has trammeled so many of his predecessors. Indeed, “Nevermore…” has plenty of laughs, at least initially.

The play is set during one of Poe’s public performances, and during the course of that progressively drunken evening, we are privy to the full force of Poe’s personality, as he reads from his poems and stories, takes waspish potshots at his more affluent (and despised) literary contemporaries, and finally touches upon the wrenching recent loss of his beloved young wife, whom, as he clearly realizes, he will soon join in death.

It’s a complicated portrayal, at times grandiose, at others abject.  The true test of Combs’ talents lies in his rendering of such Poe standards as “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Raven,” pieces so arguably overdone that one dreads hearing them even one more time.  However, until you hear Combs do them, you have never heard them before.

As always, it’s difficult to assess a director’s specific input into a solo show, but Gordon’s staging is absolutely seamless. Gordon, Paoli and Combs are all buddies who have worked together before on various horror projects.  This marks a pinnacle for their collaboration, a fitting memorial to a misunderstood genius that, one suspects, will have a life far beyond this one at the Steve Allen Theater.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

Nevermore…” Steve Allen Theater, 4773 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles.  8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.  Ends Aug. 29.  $10.  (800) 595-4849.  Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

Photo: Jeffrey Combs. Credit: Walt Boult