Jobsite's usually nimble troupe sucks the life out of Night of the Living Dead.

click to enlarge LET THE RIGHT ONE IN: Kari Goetz and Matt Lunsford fight off some unwelcome guests. - Dave Pritchard
Dave Pritchard
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN: Kari Goetz and Matt Lunsford fight off some unwelcome guests.

There were arguably two ways to go with a stage version of the 1968 cult-film classic Night of the Living Dead: play it straight, for chills and thrills, or play it for laughs, as a sort of inspired Charles Ludlam-like parody. Jobsite tries for both, and succeeds at neither. There are a few good moments — a couple of graphically gory shockers, some silly combats, and all the much-too-short scenes involving Jason Vaughan Evans — but in general this is a sloppy, flaccidly directed yawner that's short on invention and memorable acting and way too faithful to Lori Allen Ohm's tiresomely repetitive script. In its 75 minutes, it offers about 30 seconds of real hilarity and even fewer moments of genuine suspense.

The play begins with Barbara (Kari Goetz) and Johnny (Matthew Lunsford), siblings who've come to a cemetery in order to place a wreath on their father's grave. They're rudely interrupted by a zombie (Evans) who struggles with Johnny, leaving Barbara to escape to a house in the vicinity. There she tries to call for help, but her cellphone's not working, and the blood she sees on her hand seemingly sends her into shock. A rescuer arrives: Ben (Dayton Sinkia), a forward-thinking good guy who helps her fight off more ghouls and then proceeds to board up the visible doors and windows with a few unconvincing planks. Ben tells Barbara that zombies are all over the place, that he saw one group pursuing a gasoline truck, and another surrounding a diner. They turn on TV, and a newscaster (Steve Garland) informs them that the eastern part of the U.S. has become the scene of "unexplained mass murder," and there are even reports of strange beings partially devouring their victims.

Matters become more complicated when Ben discovers a whole family hiding in the house's cellar, and a tedious argument begins as to whether it's best to return down there or stay up here. As Ben and Mr. Cooper (Alvin Jenkins) thrash it out, the TV news becomes more informative: unburied dead people are coming to life everywhere; there may be a connection with a space probe to Venus; and it's imperative that all newly dead bodies be immediately cremated. None of this is too helpful to Barbara, Ben and the Coopers, though: their problem is a group of flesh-eating zombies right outside the house, moaning more and more loudly as they try to fight their way in. Who will win? At what cost? And when will things get really gory?

Now, if author Ohm were witty and wise, this plot might provide the backbone of a delightful evening of comedy, literary and visual, with more fun to be had with consciously satirical acting. But there's virtually no literary interest to the script, no memorable phrases or wonderfully silly assertions. Instead, the text of the play is tepidly straightforward, telling us what we need to know in the most obvious and uninteresting ways.

Nor is most of the acting sufficiently ironic to stimulate our laughter. There are three exceptions: Evans, again, who's hilariously extreme, both as a ghoul and a police chief; Goetz, whose enactment of horrified innocence is terrifically excessive; and Lunsford, who seems to recognize instinctively what's ludicrous about Johnny. But after the first minutes of the play, Goetz has almost no lines, and Lunsford basically disappears after his early tussle with Evans.

Meanwhile, the two characters with the most stage time — Sinkia as Ben and Jenkins as Cooper — play their parts with a strict realism that punctures every comic opportunity. Director Chris Holcom is too faithful to Ohm's anemic text, letting the talented Garland, for example, play newscaster Russell Streiner without parodic distance, when a little bit of satire would have gone a long way.

Brian Smallheer's set, representing a thinkable living room, is all too unimaginative, but Katrina Stevenson's costumes, especially for the zombies, are just as ridiculous as they ought to be. Even if the set's not much, this is a fun show to look at when those irrepressible ghouls come into view.

There is a surprise at the end of Night of the Living Dead, and, don't worry, I'm not going to reveal it here. But I will say this much: director Holcom has his cast break the fourth wall entirely, presents us with something purely theatrical and not a bit "credible" or realistic. And it works — the night I saw the play, the audience (myself included) loved it. That's what this show needs, not just at the end but throughout: a radical departure from convention. It's realism that sinks this production; more imagination could have saved it. Even the living dead need a shot of pure fancy sometimes.

night of the living dead, jobsite theater, tampa bay performing arts center, horror, halloween, jason vaughan evans, kari goetz, matthew lunsford, chris holcom, mark e leib

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