The comedic chameleon Arnie Burton first came to view in the 2008 parody version of Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, a four-character romp in which he was one of two men who played all the roles other than the hero and heroine. He was even more prominent as the featured character woman in Peter and the Starcatcher, where he was an over-the-top delight as the nanny Mrs. Bumbrake. Burton has also appeared in dramatic roles (including The Temperamentals, A Free Man of Color, and Machinal), but comedy seems to be his métier. He offers a display of high-octane clowning in the roles Charles Ludlam wrote for himself to play in the self-described "penny dreadful" The Mystery of Irma Vep, at the Lortel. Burton can grab us, and control audience laughter, by merely widening his eyes; he doesn't even have to roll them to get a roar.
Appearing opposite him in the roles originated by Everett Quinton is Robert Sella, who made a memorable debut in 1998 in the central role in Warren Leight's Side Man; departed during the run to replace Alan Cumming in the very different role of the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret; and then returned to Side Man. He has not been much in evidence hereabouts since, except for a role in the brief Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. (He also appeared as Prior in the National Tour of Angels in America, and with Maggie Smith in the 2007 West End production of Edward Albee's The Lady from Dubuque.) Sella turns out to be an adept comic actor, contributing a fair share of hilarity while not necessarily quite so adept as his scene partner.
Which takes us, inevitably, to a discussion of the play itself. The Mystery of Irma Vep -- astute anagrammers will immediately read "vampire" for "Irma Vep"--was a veritable laugh riot when Mr. Busch and Mr. Quinton (under the direction of Busch) played it on Sheridan Square in 1984; and it was arguably just as funny when Mr. Quinton and Stephen DeRosa (under the direction of Quinton) played it at the Westside in 1998. The new revival (directed by Quinton), from the Red Bull Theatre, retains the laughs and features the aforementioned skillful performances. But what had formerly seemed a sprightly satire is missing a good deal of its former sprightliness. What has heretofore been irrepressible felt sketchy, at least at the preview performance I attended. The audience got the jokes, and appreciated them, but there was a general listlessness that surprised this viewer.
This might be due to what seems to be a slightly larger and wider playing space than before, but perhaps something else is at play. Even in 1984, the idea of doing a spoof of a whole genre of melodrama -- starting with Hitchcock's Rebecca -- was not exactly novel; this had been done effectively for eons. (With the 1896 Biblical novel Quo Vadis and the resulting epic stage version all the rage, ethnic comedians Joe Weber and Lew Fields brought Quo Vass Iss? to Broadway in 1900.)
The two prior off-Broadway productions of Irma Vep -- as well as countless regional, international and amateur presentations -- succeeded with a flair. Have we in the interim became too used to inside joke after inside joke cascading from the stage? I would doubt it. But despite the accomplished work of the Messrs. Burton and Sella, this new production of Irma Vep provides constant amusement but little more. So much so that I sat there thinking of far funnier recent occasions, including David Ives' School for Lies and The Heir Apparent (currently at the Classic Stage Company) as well as Nell Benjamin's The Explorers Club -- which, as it happens, featured Mr. Burton as a mad Warrior Monk.