At one point during the Geffen Playhouse’s staging of "The Exorcist," I found myself thinking, "They should have done this as a Disney musical." Could a chorus line of sequined devils high-kicking across the Geffen stage ("Lover-ly Day for an Exorcism") be any sillier than what’s going on there now?
Consider this, too: Disney doesn’t mess with its franchises. Simba still fights his way back up Pride Rock regardless of the medium. And though I was initially intrigued with playwright John Pielmeier’s idea of turning William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel of daemonic possession into a stage play, it turns out that William Friedkin’s 1973 film version is so iconic that deviations from it are trickier than anyone imagined. Sure there is the crisis of faith element, which is what Pielmeier seizes upon to imbue his play with conflict, but pea soup and spinning heads are the minimum we expect from our exorcisms nowadays.
Blatty’s novel turns in large part on the intensely personal war between the old priest Father Merrin (Richard Chamberlain) and Satan, currently inhabiting the body of young Regan MacNeil (Emily Yetter). Yet Mr. Chamberlain plays Merrin as somebody pretty much already dead, intoning his lines with an affected accent and a dull lethargy that makes one think this is how stone effigies sound when they speak.
As the house lights dim, the company, led by Merrin, comes from behind the three sided altar screen separating the playing area from the choir (more on that later) and assembles downstage. Merrin addresses us directly, providing the first of many "oh, dear" moments: "For anyone who doubts the existence of the devil as I once did, I have three words. Auschwitz. Cambodia. Somalia."
Way to take the fun out of everything right off the bat. There’s gonna be pea soup, right?
And there is, to a point. Regan still growls, upchucks, writhes, and pees on the floor before she twists her mother’s friend head around 180 degrees and tosses him out of the window. And though there is little in the way of visual spectacle beyond a terrific levitation sequence, Yetter’s intensity and extreme physicality more than make up for a lack of harnesses, fly wires and projectile vomiting.
One only wishes the production were as miserly with sound effects. Once Regan is possessed, we are feted with unending ostinato liturgical choir music, constant and indeterminate whispering, and the occasional blast of spook house shrieking.
Then there is the hellish host.
Every line that Regan/Satan utters is spoken simultaneously by all the offstage personnel acting like a Greek chorus off its meds. Not only robbing Ms. Yetter of her most effective tool as an actress, the gimmick also blanches the drama right out of the piece, ranging in effect from a fight between the undead and might-as-well-be when Merrin confronts Satan to somebody debating a television set when Karras does.
As Karras, the young psychiatrist/priest, David Wilson Barnes is intense and persuasive, but his guilt over his mother’s demise is so over-hyped with constant repetitions of her plaintive accusations ("Demmy, Demmy, kwai you do dis to me, Demmy?") that he seems possessed himself. His ultimate sacrifice to save Regan comes across like a cheesy 11th hour plot twist in a whodunit.
Brooke Shields is surprisingly convincing as Regan’s mother Chris. Others in the cast are Roslyn Ruff as Chris’s assistant Carla, overwritten as a Rwandan ex-pat consumed with guilt over her part in the Tutsi genocide (another "oh, dear" element), Manoel Felciano as Father Joe, Tom Nelis as Dr. Klein, and Stephen Bogardus as Dr. Strong. Harry Groener is marvelous as Burke Dennings. You almost wish he’d twist Regan’s head off instead just to keep him in the mix.
John Doyle directs and directs. Dan Moses Schreier designed the sound, and I think we’ve laid him out sufficiently already. Sets and costumes are by Scott Park, lighting by Jane Cox, and music -- alas -- by Sir John Tavener.
"The Exorcist" runs through August 12 at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 LeConte Avenue in L.A.. For info or tickets, call 310-208-5454 or visit geffenplayhouse.com