Arnie Burton On The Off-Broadway Spooky Season Spoof ‘Dracula: A Comedy of Terrors’

The actor— who's been practicing, and perfecting, comedy on the stages of New York for decades—plays two roles, both women, in this raucous comedy.

Arnie Burton and James Daly in Dracula, A Comedy of Terrors. Matthew Murphy

A funny thing happened to Arnie Burton on the way to Dracula: A Comedy of Terrors, a raucous little spook spoof now at New World Stages. For several decades, Burton has been practicing—and perfecting—comedy on the stages of New York.

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It’s a surprising outcome for a guy who grew up, painfully alone and inhibited, in a humorless wilderness—specifically, in a patch of farmland outside Emmett, Idaho. But even here he invented friends who made him happy and shaped the place where he finds himself today. 

“I was raised on horror movies—and The Carol Burnett Show,” Burton tells Observer. “I love the interplay on that show—people who were having the best time with each other. I thought, ‘I want that.’”

Carol and company (Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway) would leave no prisoners when they tore into an old movie. One sketch in particular has stayed  with Burton—Rebeccy, a send-up of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. “I was just fixated,” Burton says. “Harvey Korman is still kind of an ultimate idol for me in terms of a comic actor. I thought, ‘Someday, I want to work with a group of actors and have as much fun as that.’ And we’re sending up these movies that we love.”

Burton made his mark on Broadway with another Hitchcocker: The 39 Steps, a parody that calls on a cast of just four actors to portray every character (over 100 of them) in a version of Hitchcock’s 1935 film. It opened on Broadway in 2008. “When The 39 Steps happened, I felt like I was truly living that moment,” says Burton. “It was kind of a full circle for a very shy kid to be with people that I love and enjoy and where we’re doing a loving homage to a favorite film.”

Burton stayed with the Broadway edition of The 39 Steps for two years, exiting when he had played 100 roles for the 1,000th time. Then, after a respite of seven years, he went back to the show when it moved to Off-Broadway for more of the same. “The 39 Steps was a blessing in a lot of ways, but it also earmarked me as the guy you call when you need somebody to bring a bunch of worlds to your show,” he says. “Which is great because it’s a niche that I never knew that I had.” 

Dracula: A Comedy of Terrors is a relatively light sentence for Burton in that regard. The script by Steve Rosen and director Gordon Greenberg only allots him two characters to play, both women.

Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Jordan Boatman, James Daly, Ellen Harvey, and Arnie Burton (from left) in Dracula, A Comedy of Terrors. Matthew Murphy

Dr. Van Helsing, the vampire specialist., has been turned into a Teutonic tank of a female, tightly wound and bound (think Cloris Leachman, either as High Anxiety’s Nurse Diesel or as Young Frankenstein’s Frau Blucher). Burton also passes for the heroine, Nina, with her endless auburn ringlets. There’s one playful scene where both are present and accounted for (Nina represented by red hair draped over the back of a bed, being tended to by Van Helsing).

The dizzying mix of characters don’t come to you in multitudes. “There’s not a lot of characters in this play,” Burton notes. “It’s the constant going back and forth between them that’s funny.”

James Daly has the title role all to himself. Burton and three cohorts (Jordan Boatman, Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Ellen Harvey) do the heavy-lifting, parading as 11 or 12 other characters.

As with The 39 Steps, only four actors supply all the supporting roles. “I don’t know if you have ever been backstage at New World Stages, but there’s not much to it,” Burton relays. “If you have to do quick changes—pretty extensive quick changes—it’s pretty insane back there. At least with The 39 Steps, you had a Broadway stage backstage, which was more forgiving.”

Ellen Harvey, James Daly and Arnie Burton (from left) in Dracula, A Comedy of Terrors. Matthew Murphy

Burton’s community of newfound friends builds with every show. “If you work more and more, the theater world gets smaller and smaller. It becomes almost like college—like, you know everybody now. Actually, Dracula is one of those rare instances where I didn’t know—no, that’s not true. I knew Andrew Keenan-Bolger. I did Peter and the Starcatcher with his sister, Celia.”

Although comedy is Burton’s strong suit (he won Actors Equity’s Callaway Award for The Government Inspector), he’s not afraid of drama and often participated with distinction.)

In Steven Dietz’s Lonely Planet, Burton and Matt McGrath are all that’s left of humanity. To get there, Burton had to revisit his arrival in New York when the AIDS crisis was at high tide. 

And Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 Machinal recounted a real-life murder case (which one of the attending court reporters, James M. Cain, fictionalized and titled Double Indemnity).

Burton does a deep bow to the directorial help he has had along the way. Maria Aitkin, the actress who helmed The 39 Steps, “is up there in the clouds. When I showed up for the audition, I walked into the room and recognized her immediately. She played John Cleese’s wife in A Fish Called Wanda. She was so sweet about it—truly, one of the most generous, funny, talented women directors that I have ever worked with. Period. Yeah, I love that woman.”

Similar sentiments are expressed for another British lass, Lyndsey Turner, the Machinal director. “I thought that her production was so extraordinary and beautiful and mesmerizing,” Burton says.

On this side of The Pond, there’s the late Everett Quinton of The Ridiculous Theater Company. “Robert Sella and I were doing Irma Vep, and, halfway through the rehearsal process, he said, ‘You know, you both are kinda right now in on the joke. The thing about Charles [Ludlum] and me is that we were never in on the joke. Comedy comes from acutely investing in these characters and what they want. That’s something I take to every production. Everett was very good about that. He wanted to make sure that we were not winking at the audience.”

Whether it’s drama or comedy, what’s godsent for Burton is theater. “For me, because it took me a while to come out of myself, my mom always said that she was grateful for theater,” he says. “It made me connect with the world. It was my way of being able to connect with other people.”

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Arnie Burton On The Off-Broadway Spooky Season Spoof ‘Dracula: A Comedy of Terrors’