It's kind of nice that in the 21st Century, a story about Jekyll and Hyde can be as funny as Lauren Wilson's Chemical Imbalance. When unleashed on the Victorian public in 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson's little novella was actually scary. It depicted how man's evil nature can fester while only his most civilized behaviors are ever acknowledged. Victorian societal practices, from its upper classes' hairdos to its politicians' justifications of colonialism, were predicated on the notion that the human propensity for barbarism had been banished from modern life, drowned in some shitty mental bathtub somewhere behind the limbic system. Not so, said Stevenson, and people were unsettled.
Chemical Imbalance inspires guffaws rather than discomfort, and its funniness comes not from anything Jekyll does or says but from the way the Victorian innocents he torments and then murders lack the ability to respond to what's going on. They could do something about the serial killer among them maybe, but it wouldn't be civilized.
This is Chemical Imbalance's only real joke, and it doesn't get old — perhaps because we find it amusing that our Victorian forebears were so out-of-touch with their inner animals or perhaps because there is something about obliviousness that naturally stimulates the funny bone. (And really, aren't all jokes about obliviousness?) Regardless, Chemical Imbalance is balls-out funny from beginning to end. It is also wise, moral, and, in Clive Cholerton's production at Caldwell Theatre, brought to life by a precisely perfect cast.
Chemical Imbalance dispenses with all of the characters familiar from the Stevenson joint, save Jekyll/Hyde himself (played by Tom Wahl) — I'm guessing because Stevenson's novel was exclusively a boys' club. Taking the place of the wimpy Dr. Hastie Lyons is the geeky Dr. Xavier Utterton (Wynn Harmon), who walks like a man who's just suffered a cataclysmic wedgie, smiles like a skull, and laughs like this: "Myeh, myeh, myeh." Wilson dispenses with the other characters altogether. Poole is gone, as are Sir Danvers Carew, Utterson, Enfield, and Newcomen. That musty crew has been transformed into a menagerie of SoFla's most vibrant co-ed thesps: Amy Elane Anderson as Rosamunda Dewhistle, Dr. Jekyll's busty love interest; Angie Radosh as Euphronia Jekyll, Dr. Jekyll's mum; Erin Joy Schmidt as Ambrosia, Dr. Jekyll's sister; John Felix as Lady Throckmortonshire, the wealthiest woman in Britain; Tiffany-Leigh Moskow as Throckmortonshire's adorable twin daughters; and Lindsey Forgey and Laura Turnbull as the Jekylls' maids.
Stevenson's plot has been tweaked thusly: Jekyll is tongue-tied around his would-be fiancée, Rosamunda, and so his sister is constantly trying to mash them together, usually over a meal. On one such occasion, Rosamunda, along with Dr. Xavier and the Throckmortonshire brood, are over at the Jekylls' home for supper. Ahead of the meal, Jekyll is missing, and some madman smashes a wee little puppy to death on the front steps, disturbing some carolers who have swung by to sing "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." The women are terrified. Jekyll, reappearing, is weirdly calm. He takes Dr. Xavier into his confidence: He has discovered a potion capable of separating man's good nature from his bad, and he likes it. He likes being evil.
Dinner is somewhat strained, and Jekyll is too distracted to pay attention to Rosamunda. This bothers Euphronia, a spinster in the making who'd appreciate at least one member of her generation being properly married. She plans a retry for the next evening. Unfortunately, Jekyll goes on a potion-bender and spends the night prowling the streets, trampling on wreaths, mutilating pigeons, popping the balloons of little girls and stabbing a police officer in the Johnson. (The bobby bleeds to death.) Jekyll is therefore too tired the next day to do any quality courting. Also, by then he's imbibed too much of his special potion: He begins morphing from Jekyll to Hyde, willy-nilly. In the process, he kills most of his housemates. The end!
Jekyll's sad story suffers not at all for its condensation into a single 24-hour period, probably because of the bright, shiny new characters who make the old story not just interesting but exhilarating. What actress in the known universe can do frightened mortification so well as Turnbull, whose eyes grow large as moons while her voice withers into a pinched little squeak at the back of her throat? What actor could do a sloppy, slutty old grand dame with half the verve of Felix, whose every drunken swish across the stage looks like an invitation to discover Victoria's Secret in the dressing room after the show? And is there any more deadpan thesp than Radosh — who, commenting on the sorry state of her towering hairdo after witnessing the murder of a puppy and the invasion of her home by a probable psychopath, tells her daughter: "I'm afraid the strain of the afternoon has caused it to list inelegantly." She might as well be asking her daughter to please pass the salt.
Such are the things that stay with us after a viewing of Chemical Imbalance. Not Wahl's virtuoso transformations from the tongue-tied Jekyll into the lustful, violent Hyde — we are 21st-century people, and we are perfectly in touch with violence and lust, thankyouverymuch. What sticks around is the droll panache with which Jekyll's friends and family deal with the unspeakable, how gracefully they inhabit their dignified personas, no matter how impractical those personas may be. Watching Jekyll/Hyde chasing a little girl through the garden with a butcher's knife, one of the ladies comments: "Perhaps you may draw a lesson here." Indeed.