Edgar Allan Poe is reciting his poem “The Raven.” Well, reciting may be too tame a word. Poe (a.k.a. Jeffrey Combs) is creeping, cowering and gesticulating his way through a rendition that begins with aplomb but soon descends into a frenzy fueled by the author’s broken heart, unsteady mind and fondness for whiskey.
As Poe utters the final line, the audience at the Steve Allen Theater in Hollywood erupts into applause. Who knew such a famously morbid man could be so entertaining?
Indeed, the humanity -- and humor -- in Combs’ portrayal is one reason “Nevermore . . . An Evening With Edgar Allan Poe” has enjoyed full houses and ecstatic reviews. Another is the deftness with which the play pokes holes in the popular image of the 19th century writer.
“Everyone seems to think they know Poe’s story, but they usually get something wrong,” says Combs during lunch at his home in suburban Ventura County.
“He’s really a complex guy. He could be sweet and stern, articulate and falling-down drunk. The complete human condition, albeit to extremes.”
Combs hopes his one-man show -- which has been extended through Sept. 26 -- will make people think differently about not only its subject but its star. Even though his roots are in theater, the 54-year-old actor is best known as a horror movie hero and TV space alien. He became a splatter icon after appearing in the 1985 cult classic “Re-Animator” as Herbert West, a medical student obsessed with bringing the dead -- and their assorted body parts -- to life. He also has created deliciously nasty or conniving characters for several “Star Trek” spinoffs.
“Horror and sci-fi have been good to me, and the fans are wonderful,” Combs says. “But I pride myself on being a versatile actor, which I hope comes through here.”
As much as he hates being typecast, the actor acknowledges that his past has opened doors: “People who love ‘Re-Animator’ offer me things, which has made it easier to do film work -- at least a certain kind of film work.”
Even “Nevermore” grows out of his time spent as Herbert West. The production results from a collaboration with “Re-Animator” director Stuart Gordon and co-writer Dennis Paoli -- the latest in a series of what Combs calls “happy accidents” that have helped shape his career.
Combs, who grew up on the central California coast, worked for five years as “a nomadic actor lad,” performing on stages including the Mark Taper Forum and San Diego’s Old Globe. In 1980, he moved to L.A. and struggled to break into Hollywood. While he was appearing in a play on Melrose Avenue, a casting director approached him. “He said I might be right for something he was doing,” Combs recalls. “It turned out to be ‘Re-Animator.’ ”
“Jeffrey walked in and nailed it,” Gordon says. “The character was described as looking nothing like him -- Aryan and blond and Jeffrey was dark and small -- but he just had the right attitude.”
Gordon says he and Combs have made six or seven films together. “Jeffrey is my favorite kind of actor. He’s willing to take chances and isn’t afraid to make a fool of himself by not playing it safe. He always surprises and delights me with his approach to the character.”
Combs admits “Re-Animator’s” excesses gave him qualms. “But I thought, ‘Well, no one will ever see this.’ Boy, was I wrong.” He and costar Bruce Abbott developed a strategy to cope with the ghoulishness: “The only way we could get through this, that an audience could get through this, was to take it seriously, but find humor to defuse it.”
Fortunately, says Combs, everything fell into place -- the right editor, composer and cast as well as “a good script and good storytelling.” The film, which was inspired by an H.P. Lovecraft tale, was championed by Pauline Kael and won a critics prize at Cannes. “ ‘Re-Animator’ has as much originality as it has gore, and that’s really saying something,” Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times. She added that “Dr. West [is] played with supreme priggishness and just the right scary countenance by Jeffrey Combs.”
CV in sci-fi, horror
Combs has been in more than 40 horror flicks, including two “Re-Animator” sequels. Among his favorite films is the 1996 “The Frighteners,” which was co-written and directed by Peter Jackson (“He was a ‘Re-Animator’ fan,” says Combs.)
The actor also has made “maybe a dozen” non-horror movies, including the 1994 outlaw road pic “Love and a .45" with Renee Zellweger.
Most of Combs’ TV time has been devoted to the “Star Trek” universe. He joined the “Star Trek” saga’s extended cast in the mid-'90s by landing a small role in “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” that led to a bigger role that led to his playing two recurring characters -- the Ferengi Brunt and the Vorta clone Weyoun. Combs became a fan favorite, ending up in more than 40 episodes across three series, including “Star Trek: Enterprise,” on which he was the feisty blue Andorian, Shran.
While some actors hate the makeup sci-fi requires, Combs finds it liberating. “You put it on and it’s like Halloween.”
As another plus, he adds, “I can go to the store and no one knows it’s me.”
When he’s home, Combs leads a fairly normal life with his wife, two daughters and dog. But when he hits the horror and science-fiction fan circuits, he draws a crowd. This month, he zipped between “Nevermore” performances and “Star Trek” conventions in New Jersey and Las Vegas. “I knew I was really in the realm of the revered when I went to a horror convention and someone asked if I would sign a tattoo of me on their calf,” he says.
Quoth the raven
Combs, a history buff, became intrigued with the idea of playing Poe about four years ago after noticing the two men were the same size (5-feet-8) and believing few had successfully dramatized the author’s story. Gordon and Paoli reimagined Poe’s story “The Black Cat” -- with Poe (Combs) as the protagonist -- for a 2007 episode of Showtime’s “Masters of Horror.”
Combs was so convincing that Gordon suggested he do a one-man show. The veteran film director has an eye for theatrical potential, having co-founded Chicago’s Organic Theater Company, whose many original works include David Mamet’s “Sexual Perversity in Chicago.”
Combs, Gordon and Paoli conceived “Nevermore” as a public appearance by Poe in 1848, a year after the death of his beloved wife and a year before his own mysterious demise at 40. Instead of a typical “I-did-this-then-that” bio format, the writer’s life is revealed in nonlinear glimpses. “It’s like peeling an onion,” says Gordon.
The evening showcases some of Poe’s popular works as well as his internal demons, including his penchant for self-sabotage and his rage and regret at gaining fame but neither wealth nor the respect of his peers.
Combs sees Poe as a comrade of the mad scientists and space villains in his “rogues’ gallery” of characters. “I guess I have the ability to play people you love to hate or hate to love.”
“In ‘Nevermore,’ ” he says, “we bring you this tortured individual in all his colors.”
That’s why the play ends with a bravura performance of “The Raven.” “We can’t have you go away without hope,” Combs explains. “We want to show that Poe can rally and be everything we want and expect, everything about him that made us laugh and cry and cringe.”