LONDON — Has a vampire had its way with “All About Eve”? The anemic spectacle now sleepwalking across the stage of the Noël Coward Theater here shares a title, characters and much of its dialogue with Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Oscar-winning 1950 film about the glamorous narcissists who inhabit the dark and glittering world of Broadway.
Yet as adapted and directed by the international auteur Ivo van Hove, what was originally a crackling, high-gloss satire now feels like a horror movie without a pulse. The shades of lurid red that saturate the sets and costumes for this production, which opened on Tuesday night with Gillian Anderson as its enervated star, suggest nothing so much as the fast-drying lifeblood of an exsanguinated masterpiece.
The Belgian-born Mr. van Hove, perhaps the most unlikely artist ever to become a hot Broadway director, is famed for his onstage vivisections of classic films. The results have embraced the very good (“Opening Night”), the bad (“Obsession”) and the mesmerizingly ugly (“The Damned”). (His current New York hit, “Network,” falls somewhere in between.) But they could usually be relied upon to throb with unsettling and exciting energy.
Yet his “Eve” is always on the edge of slipping into a coma, taking its audience with it. The most entertaining backstage drama to come out of Hollywood — starring Bette Davis as the volcanic stage star Margo Channing — Mankiewicz’s film is dear to theater-loving moviegoers, who commit to memory its poisoned bon mots.
The best-known: “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” As spoken by Davis’s Margo, as a warning to guests foolish enough to attend a party she’s giving, those words had the exhilarating crack of bullwhip.
Uttered by Ms. Anderson in the same role, the lines slide off her tongue like clotted, bilious spittle. It seems fitting that shortly thereafter we see her (via a stalking video camera, which takes us backstage and into bathrooms) vomiting into a toilet bowl, with a subsequent close-up of its contents.
Mr. van Hove is once again daring to tell it like it is, right? After all, this is how real people behave when they’ve drunk to excess. And Margo, who is about 50 (not 40, as in the film), probably can’t hold her liquor as she once did.
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But the glory of the Mankiewicz movie is its immaculate artifice. A savvy celebration of a mythic urban sophistication, it is basically the sum of its epigrams and perfectly groomed star turns. It has about as much of a bona fide heart as its title character, Eve Harrington (Lily James, of “Downton Abbey,” in the Anne Baxter role), a fox in lamb’s clothing who schemes to take Margo’s place in the bedroom and on the marquee.
The movie’s enameled veneer is what holds it together, and once you strip that away, the whole sparkly edifice crumbles, leaving … well, all Mr. van Hove seems to have found is a vacuum. The big tragic emotions that he elicited so brilliantly in his Broadway revivals of Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge” and “The Crucible” simply aren’t here to be mined.
So Mr. van Hove has grabbed hard at the film’s most melancholy element, Margo’s vanity about getting older, which becomes an all-out terror of mortality. When Ms. Anderson stares into her makeup mirror — the solar center of Jan Versweyveld’s mutable set — her face, as replicated on a giant screen, ages into crumbly decrepitude. Margo responds, understandably, by doing an impression of Munch’s “The Scream.”
This isn’t funny, nor is it meant to be. The music heard throughout, by the gifted PJ Harvey, is ever so somber, inspired by Liszt’s “Liebestraume.” And while most of the film’s wittier lines are retained, they land with the thud of frivolous jokes at a funeral.
Ms. James’s Eve is so fiendishly feverish and tremulous from the get-go, you can’t believe everyone doesn’t run for cover. Playing Margo’s best friend, Karen (the Celeste Holm part), Monica Dolan gives a raw emotional performance more suitable to Mr. van Hove’s intense stage production of “Scenes From a Marriage.”
As the viperish, all-powerful theater critic Addison DeWitt (embodied to acidic perfection in the film by George Sanders), Stanley Townsend is so melodramatically satanic he might as well be carrying a pitchfork. The other cast members just seem to saying their lines and hoping for the best.
Ms. Anderson, a perennially witty and adventurous actress, was a smashing Blanche in Benedict Andrews’ deconstructed “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Her Margo, with her languid speech and wilting posture, suggests Blanche in that play’s final scenes, already defeated and depleted.
At her ill-fated party, Margo asks the hired pianist (Philip Voyzey) to keep playing a lugubrious lullaby she calls “Sandman.” All she wants, it would seem, is to sleep. Can you blame her?