Remains Theatre

Under the best of circumstances, adapting a novel to the stage is a tricky business. Novels tend to be too long, too digressive, too detailed, too tied to the beauties and ambiguities of the written word to translate comfortably into the material world of a two-hour stage production. Especially when the novel in question is by a writer as notoriously difficult as Vladimir Nabokov. (Even Nabokov himself was only partly successful adapting Lolita to the screen.)

Mind you, Laughter in the Dark is one of Nabokov’s early works (published in the early 30s), not nearly as complex as some of his later novels. Originally written in Russian and later translated by Nabokov into English, it’s remarkably free of baroque literary encrustation. The story–about a bland but likable art dealer named Albinus, who throws away his respectable life and marriage when he falls for a predatory vixen–unfolds swiftly, and the characters’ motivations are clear. Even the novel’s most strikingly Nabokovian elements, most notably the conscious parody of popular movie melodramas, work to make it more, not less, accessible to the general reader.

It’s no wonder that Mary Zimmerman, who adapted and directed this Remains Theatre production, was attracted to the material. This is the woman, after all, who dared to adapt The Odyssey (for the Lookingglass Theatre Ensemble) and won critical acclaim for her pains. Still, it might have been better if she’d been attracted to a less perfect work of literature, something that could stand a little editing and reshaping.

As it is, too much of what makes Nabokov’s original work great gets lost in the adaptation process. His cool, cruel narration loses much of its bite when divided among the various characters in the story. (Of the cast members, only Christopher Donahue as the mean-spirited rake Axel Rex speaks Nabokov’s prose with sufficient cruelty.) Similarly, theater can only clumsily approximate the deft way Nabokov’s narration glides from one point of view to another in the novel.

More damaging still is the way the parody evident in the novel–every twist and turn in the hero’s love affair seems to have been lifted from a bad novel or film–is missing in this adaptation, effectively transforming Nabokov’s parody of middlebrow middle-class melodramas into a middlebrow middle-class melodrama.

This is not to say Remains’ production is by any means a total failure. Thanks in large part to Zimmerman’s constantly inventive if at times overly mannered staging (and to John Musial’s beautiful and practical set), Laughter in the Dark contains several moments of astonishing power. One scene in particular, in which a dying young girl speaks to a man passing in the street (who she believes is her father but may be the Angel of Death), is actually more effective onstage than in the novel.

Zimmerman does her best to display her adaptation to full advantage. Of course, it helps that she has such a great cast to work with; especially worth mentioning are Gerry Becker as the simp Albinus, Heidi Stillman as the vixenish Margot Peters, and Donahue as Axel Rex. Of the ten cast members only Martha Lavey–sleepwalking through yet another passive, emotionally distant character, that of Albinus’s jilted wife–delivers a less than excellent performance.