Nevermore With Jeffrey Combs As Edger Allan Poe Taps Every Emotion
Imagine a world before computers, before TV, before radio, before the telegraph! Imagine a time when information and entertainment was delivered in person. In that pre-techno age a performance was measured by its clarity, power, and ability to convince and control – unlike today, by the sheer numbers it may reach. And so we have here, at the Steve Allen Theater, 4773 Hollywood Blvd. (through Sunday, Aug. 2), a most singular event about one of the masters of American literature. Jeffrey Combs as Edgar Allan Poe in a 95 minute show called, understandably, Nevermore, runs as wide a range of emotions imaginable from joy to despair, from bitterness to exuberance, from soulful pain to flights of pure poetic invention. And we learn and experience more about Poe in that short time than from any other media device possible. It’s about the power of a direct impact.
Addressing the audience directly as often as not, Combs was well in control at all times throughout. Unfortunately, there were moments of pure indulgence, drunken boorishness and rambling unintelligible poetry midway through the evening. After drinking a pint of whiskey during the proceedings (to everyone’s amusement) at one point Combs entered the audience, lost his way towards the back of the theatre, and played directly to the groundlings. It was a crowd pleaser, to be sure. It blurred the image of Poe as a powerful intellectual in charge of his art. But when Combs was in tune with this most appreciative audience he was quite the performer. His early reading of The Tell Tale Heart struck just the right note. It was not too long, with a flamboyant flourish at the end. He was clearly sardonic, and amused at his own ability to entertain. While reciting Annabell Lee (as all high schoolers know is about the death from TB of his young wife), he essayed an intensely personal and sensuous delivery, as one might understand. The Bells was delivered as almost an aside, and played delightfully.
Poe was not above ranting on and on about his personal literary dislikes. Chief among them was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who married a wealthy woman just one year after his first wife’s death and then got an appointment to Harvard. (He pronounced Harvard with appropriate sarcasm.) Poe was a son of the south, born in Boston but raised in Virginia. He never found approval by the New England intelligentsia. The Raven however, made him famous but did not bring financial reward with it. Combs recital was the penultimate moment, closed the show, and deservedly got an enthusiastic applause. Program notes tell us that “playwright Dennis Paoli based his script on Poe’s own notes, letters and writings, as well as contemporary accounts of his appearances.” Director Stuart Gordon utilized the space quite well. Bearing a striking resemblance to the master, Comb’s skillfully (except for the aforementioned drunken episode) manipulates himself around the stage cleverly. My premise at the introduction to this essay is simple. Despite its flaws, Nevermore has left me with not only a didactic experience, but an indelible, unforgettable, and powerful knowledge of Edgar Allan Poe. And for that I am truly grateful.