Jonathan Frid
at Halsted Theatre Centre

In Jack Finney’s story “The Third Level,” a man becomes obsessed with finding the entrance to a hidden, low level of Grand Central Station, from which he can take a magic train to the past. In his two programs of solo story telling, Fridiculousness and Fools & Fiends, actor Jonathan Frid takes his audience on a similar quest. Reading from a collection of mostly marvelous material by writers ranging from Edgar Allan Poe, H.H. Munro (who used the pen name Saki), and W. Somerset Maugham to Finney, James Thurber, Robert Benchley, and Dorothy Parker, Frid summons up a more leisurely and literate era, when horror fans wanted their chills slow and spooky and comedy lovers took time to linger over their laughs.

The nostalgia theme is implicit in Frid’s very appearance. He is, of course, the onetime star of Dark Shadows, the television soap opera about a reluctant vampire that ran some 20 years ago. Brought to the series in 1967 to add some, um, fresh blood, Frid pepped up the low-rated show and helped turn it into a cult hit until it went off the air in 1971. Today, Dark Shadows is gaining a new lease on life via videocassettes (a new version of the show, with Ben Cross in Frid’s old role of Barnabas Collins, is also in the works). Meanwhile, Frid himself, now in his mid-60s, sticks mostly to touring with his one-man shows (he does a Shakespearean evening as well as these two anthology programs).

Stories and poems as good as these are more than mere nostalgia. But it’s interesting, especially in Fridiculousness, just how consistently the theme of searching for the past runs through the material Frid has chosen. Is this an unconscious reflection of his own fond memories of pop-culture stardom a generation ago? It doesn’t matter; a trained Shakespearean actor, Frid today is an eminently watchable and listenable performer. Rounder and jowlier than he was in his Barnabas days, looking rather like a suburban yacht-club member in his blue blazer and white shirt open at the neck, he stands under a shaft of light on a mostly bare stage, with only a reading stand and a high stool to enhance his sly and scholarly demeanor.

Fridiculousness is the more modest and low-key of the two shows. It starts with a display of vocal virtuosity, as Frid reads “Yma Dream,” a New Yorker story by Thomas Meehan (coauthor of the musical Annie). In this comic nightmare, a man finds himself hosting a party for South American songstress and camp idol Yma Sumac–a party attended by celebrities whose first names all consist of two vowel-heavy syllables. Amusing to read, the story is hysterically funny to listen to as the well-trained Frid twists his tongue quickly around such monikers as Yma, Ava, Ugo, Oona, Abba, Uta, and–say these three fast in succession–Anna, Mata, Pia.

His dexterous diction displayed, Frid then proceeds through an assortment of prose and verse–some of it his own–in which a rosily remembered past comes crashing into a less than pleasant present. In Robert Frost’s poem “A Considerable Speck,” Frid evokes a quaint and lovely earlier era when writers wrote with pens, not processors. In “My ‘Fridean’ Connections,” Frid recounts his own genealogical research; when he notes that Frid comes out of “frith,” meaning a haven, the sense of taking refuge in the past is reinforced.

But Frid soon undercuts our sentimental inclinations. The carefree world of childhood is shown to be a maelstrom of anxiety in Stephen King’s wryly funny horror story, “Here There Be Tygers,” in which a little boy is afraid to go to the bathroom because a man-eating tiger awaits within. In poetry by Eve Merriam, the rhythms of childhood nursery rhymes collide with the harsh realities of a mechanized, dehumanizing world. Then Frid follows up with a pair of his own monologues: one about his elderly mother’s efforts to cope with that newfangled invention the answering machine, the second a hilarious depiction of a man trying to fight a hospital’s automated telephone answering service. (“If you are suffering from a life-threatening illness or injury, please press one now,” intones a mechanical voice. “Press two if you are unconscious . . .” In a caption from a Gahan Wilson cartoon, A Christmas Carol’s Mrs. Cratchit reads the ingredients of her delightful goose dinner with mounting horror at their ghastly sounding scientific names. And so it goes. The past is lovely, but illusory and dead; the present is all too with us. Try to escape it, and you’ll end up like the haunted hero of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”–the program’s highly theatrical closer–driven mad by the memory of the man he killed.

Fools & Fiends is a showier piece; here, Frid lets loose with a juicy stream of vocal and facial effects, distancing the audience from himself and displaying instead the capacity for characterization bred in him from his youthful stint in the British repertory system. Richard Hughes’s “The Ghost” sets a superbly chilling tone as Frid enacts a conversation between two friends–one of whom is dead. Saki’s classic “The Open Window,” a hair-raiser with a funny ending twist, leaves the listener amused but unsettled and most receptive to the grim grotesquerie of Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” In this tale of mad revenge, Frid’s voice turns as dry as the dust that fills up the lungs of a drunken nobleman walled up in the catacombs of a wine cellar by an enemy he thought was his friend.

The link between friendship or love and animosity or hatred is strengthened in other selections: Stephen King’s engrossing study of a serial murderer, “The Man Who Loved Flowers,” leads to Irwin Shaw’s masterfully enigmatic portrait of a troubled marriage, “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses,” and finally to James Thurber’s delicious “Mr. Preble Gets Rid of His Wife,” in which a henpecked husband can’t even murder his spouse without her giving irritating advice on how to do the job.

The audience for these two programs consists mostly of people in their early 30s–fans of Dark Shadows out to recapture that old adolescent thrill. It’s unlikely that most of these people would pay to see an evening of reader’s theater if the reader weren’t Frid. That’s fine by Frid, who clearly relishes the chance to expose his aging idolators to a neglected theatrical form at which he excels. Like Dark Shadows’s immortal bloodsucker Barnabas, there’s plenty of life left in these finely crafted pieces of literature–and in the fellow who’s speaking them.