Photo by Dan Reed

I had a revelation after watching last winter’s TV biopic The Reagans: From now on all adaptations should be written by Elizabeth Egloff. The playwright-turned-screenwriter transformed the story of Ron and Nancy into a bitchy camp fest, a skill she later applied to another TV special, Peter Bogdanovich’s The Mystery of Natalie Wood. The ability to find quirky laughs in sometimes grim material had already been demonstrated in her 1993 stage adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Devils, which is receiving its Los Angeles premiere at the Open Fist Theater.

Egloff takes this 1871 novel, about a conspiratorial band of provincial nihilists, that is part homage to Russian nativism, part Dark Shadows thriller, and turns entire scenes into Marx Brothers farce. She isn’t, for example, satisfied with re-creating the moment in which the aristocratic revolutionary Nicholas Stavrogin bites the ear of the local governor but turns it into a set piece of commedia dell’arte, especially when it is later replayed with an entire group of characters biting each other.

In other words, don’t look for a reverential translation of the novel in this play. Nor should we try to glimpse the novelist’s darker ruminations, hinted in one chapter when he denounces, among others, “wretched little Jews with a mournful but haughty smile . . . poets with political tendencies . . . women who were the embodiment of the woman question.” Instead, we’re here to have fun watching a group of poseurs, wannabes and never-beens as socialists and socialites pretentiously speak French, and discuss burning down Mother Russia and killing God. Here, the territorial governor (Rod Sell), a former railway clerk, compulsively blurts out “Choooo! Choooo!” whenever challenged, and characters jump in and out of windows or pop up from trapdoors.

Even so, Egloff reserves quiet time to faithfully bridge in the novel’s philosophical interludes, as when Kirilov (Patrick Tuttle) speaks of suicide as the true path to emancipation, or the brittle human moments, such as Marie Shatov (Heather Fox) crying out for her murdered husband after she has given birth to another man’s child. And that is the show’s problem — by trying to have it both ways, Egloff merely confuses us and turns the evening, with its added moments of shtick, into a lumbering three-hour muddle. (Do we, after repeated hints of a crime committed by Nicholas [Benjamin Burdick] against a young girl [Amanda Weier], really need to have him take the time to confess his deed at play’s end?)

Nevertheless, director Florinel Fatulescu makes this long spectacle watchable, and Jeff G. Rack’s two-tiered set, which often forces the conspirators to scrunch down in tight, claustrophobic spaces, captures the novel’s feverish intensity. The cast is mostly serviceable, with Jeremy Lawrence standing out as the whining intellectual Stepan Verkhovensky, whose role is somewhat diminished onstage. Verkhovensky, alas, is no Ronald Reagan. Perhaps TV is the best venue for adaptations when the source material is sublime and the results ridiculous. Note: There have been cast changes since this review.

THE DEVILS | By ELIZABETH EGLOFF | At OPEN FIST THEATER, 1625 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood | Through May 8 | (323) 882-6912

LA Weekly