BY ROB KENDT
Special to Newsday
October 8, 2007
"If the wolves come out of the walls, it's all over."
That's the cryptic received wisdom the grown-ups keep repeating to Lucy, the frustrated heroine of Neil Gaiman's spooky children's book "The Wolves in the Walls," who swears she's been hearing telltale scratchings behind the wood paneling.
The National Theatre of Scotland's stage version of Gaiman's book doesn't entirely drain the story of its eerie portent or gritty magical realism, but it does make for a lopsided stage experience: Pitch-dark and melancholic in its look, but antic - even silly - in its action, "The Wolves in the Walls" plays a bit as if Samuel Beckett had penned an episode of "The Muppet Show."
This seems fine for kids of kindergarten age and older, though parents had better be prepared for some very colorful (and possibly frightful) imaginings at bedtime for some time to come. Parents themselves may be less enchanted, let alone haunted.
In adapting the book for the stage, director Vicky Featherstone and designer Julian Crouch ("Shockheaded Peter") have beautifully re-created the dirty-oilcloth look of Dave McKean's illustrations, right down to the tentative scrawlings of Lucy, herself a budding artist. Nick Powell's musical score leans a bit heavily on the ballads and the woodwinds, but he steps up the percussive prickles and quirks when the mayhem gets rolling.
Natasha Chivers' lighting design gives the cast a yellowing, corpse-like complexion, even when they're in a good mood.
This would seldom describe cranky Lucy (Helen Mallon), who starts the show bored by her mundane home life, and progresses to anxiety and fear when at last a bona fide adventure comes howling her way.
The problem, we quickly see, is her family. Each member is preoccupied with a solitary quirk: Mum (Anita Vettesse) makes jam, Dad (George Drennan) practices the tuba and Brother (Paul James Corrigan) twiddles his video-game joystick. When the family is forced outdoors by the lupine home invasion Lucy has been both dreading and craving, they're little changed by the upheaval - Lucy, at least, seems to find them every bit as insufferable and thickheaded as before.
Eventually she leads them to join together and reclaim their rightful residence by outscaring the interloping wolves. This unfortunately doesn't seem much of a feat. The creatures in question take two forms: big burlap puppets that hang off of puppeteers wearing jodhpurs, and oversized headpieces that teeter precariously on top of actors. The effect is more grungily funny than outright terrifying - more like a live-action cartoon than mesmerizing nightmare fodder.
There are a few exceptions. Cackling silhouettes of wolves' heads behind the walls prove far scarier than their full-body presence. One tableau shows Lucy's stuffed piglet doll bobbing between wolves' greedy mouths like a pink piñata. And at one point, Dad's tuba-playing seems to inspire a chair to dance and fly, in a marvelous demonstration of low-tech stage wonder.
There are enough of these moments to elevate "Wolves" above mere kiddie goofing, if not quite up to the level of ageless classic.
WOLVES IN THE WALLS.
Conceived and developed by Vicky Featherstone, Julian Crouch and Nick Powell, based on the book by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. Through Oct. 21 at the New Victory Theatre,
229 W. 42nd St., Manhattan. For tickets, call 646-223-3010. Seen Thursday.
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