Henry James would probably die all over again if he could hear one of his characters describe the looming, intangible something that dominates his life, that he’s in search of and afraid of and driven and consumed by, as “The Great Mystical Fuck.” But those are the words put into the mouth of John Marcher, the protagonist of James’s 1903 novella The Beast in the Jungle, by David Thompson, book-writer of the new, sometimes beautiful, and often frustrating “dance play” of the same name, now having its premiere at the Vineyard Theatre.
Inspired by James’s story — though not, to be clear, a straight adaptation — The Beast in the Jungle is the latest of multiple collaborations by Thompson, the composer John Kander (of Cabaret and Chicago), and director/choreographer Susan Stroman, whose sassy, joyful, story-driven style helped bring choreographic pizzazz back to Broadway in the 1990s (the Gershwins’ Crazy for You and Mel Brooks’s The Producers are among her big hits). It’s a small-cast musical without singing, driven by Kander’s lush, waltz-rich score — which intermittently put me in mind of a more sinister A Little Night Music — and Stroman’s dances, executed by the virtuosic likes of Broadway favorite Tony Yazbeck, the Ukrainian-American ballerina Irina Dvorovenko, and a chorus of six hardworking willowy women. Their jobs include fawning over Yazbeck, swishing in red dresses and skulking in dark leotards, and bravely pushing the show (and its set pieces) from one scene to the next. Teagle F. Bougere and the excellent Peter Friedman are also along for the ride, holding down the fort for Team We Don’t Dance.
If that sounds a little flip, it’s because, despite the show’s attempts to take its audience places both romantic and dark, and despite Kander’s sweeping, often beautiful music, I fear I felt resistant to its pull. “Fear” being the apposite word. The Beast in the Jungle — the play, not the story by James — unfolds as a retrospective, as the older Marcher (Peter Friedman, doing his best to bring some depth and nuance to a very difficult narrator role) shares a late-night whiskey with his nephew and, at the young man’s insistence, tells the story of his unlived life. This nephew has just been kicked out of the house by his girlfriend after he confessed to being unready for marriage (“I want something more,” he says. “No, you are afraid,” returns his uncle, “Go back to your apartment, drop on one knee, and tell [her] you want to get married. Immediately”). Now, the boy wants his worldly, enigmatic uncle’s perspective: Marcher’s a wealthy art dealer with a glamorous Manhattan flat (it’s 2018, not 1903) and he’s been all over the globe, enjoyed all sorts of experience, loved all sorts of women. “To women,” the two men toast, as Marcher begins his story.
Of course, Marcher hasn’t really enjoyed anything or loved anyone. His life has been an empty jaunt from one beautiful locale and one meaningless assignation to the next, dominated by the inexorable fear that one day, “sooner or later, something will happen, and destroy [him].” He’s got “a beast” he tells us, a menacing force that haunts him, that “will rip me to shreds, and anyone I’m with.” So he’s a runner. He skips town whenever he starts to feel anything too deeply. Still in search of the Great Mystical Fuck but terrified by the Great Indefinable Beast. No one knows his secret — except, of course, for one woman. One who’s different from all the others. One who’s gorgeous and soft-voiced and artistically gifted and adventurous and who literally floats into the play en pointe wearing diaphanous pink and a hair bow (all the other women have sauntered and shimmied in red, the hussies). One who doesn’t fawn over him but who truly loves him, despite his miserable insistence to her: “I am not to be loved.”
Perhaps I’m being unfair, but I have a very hard time keeping my eyebrow from rising (and twitching) in these stories of charming, cowardly men-children who carry what they believe to be their damage like a holy cross, making a fetish of their brokenness. What I don’t know, though, is this: Are such stories still worth telling because they force us to examine a real phenomenon, a very prevalent and very disturbing mode of masculinity? I think it depends on how the story is told — how much it glorifies (knowingly or not) its wayward, self-flagellating protagonist along the way, and how much it falls prey to stereotype and cliché (those red and pink dresses, say) in the telling. Ten minutes into A Beast in the Jungle, I could tell that it was going to teach me the same thing as High Fidelity’s Rob Gordon — undoubtedly among pop culture’s Top Five self-pitying, self-defeating men-children, and one whose story is unerringly smart — when he sits on that bench in the rain after the funeral of his ex-girlfriend’s dad: “I can see now I never really committed to Laura. I always had one foot out the door … I guess it made more sense to commit to nothing. Keep my options open. And that’s suicide. By tiny, tiny increments.”
So, why should you see The Beast in the Jungle instead of watching John Cusack again? I’m not sure you should. It takes John Marcher a whole lifetime to learn the same thing that Rob seems finally to be picking up around age 35 (though, to be fair, it takes each of them about an hour and 45 minutes; Marcher’s journey, while intermission-less, wouldn’t suffer at all from being 15 minutes tighter). The frustrating thing about Thompson, Kander, and Stroman’s take on James’s novella is that they reframe his study of nameless menace as an easier piece of psychology: It’s about sex and love and a man’s fear of commitment, a story that’s been told countless times and more compellingly before. The source material, by contrast, contains these strands but braids them into a darker, heavier, less readily diagnosable rope that Marcher is using to choke himself. James’s Marcher literally spends his life — which, like James’s himself, may in fact have been a celibate one — “watching” for something he cannot name. His companion on this unconsummated crusade of anxiety is May Bertram, the one woman, who, in characteristically cryptic Jamesian fashion, reveals to Marcher before she dies (again, they’ve grown old waiting for his “beast” to strike) that “what was to [happen]… has happened.”
That’s a tricky place to start writing a musical, and the lurking intangibles of James’s heavy, twisty prose were bound to get a bit more concrete on stage. But does the show’s May (the luminous, agile Dvorovenko) really need to wear so much pink? (The Matisse-inspired scenic and costume design, which feels like a slightly underfunded draft of a more expensive idea, is by Michael Curry). Does Yazbeck — who plays Young Marcher as well as (via a pair of glasses) the nephew — really need to have so many dance sequences where he smirks his way through the ensemble’s women, rotating-door style? (These are marked by cringey-cute couplets like “Meet me in the convent, please” / “I’ll be on my knees” and “Do you ride English saddle?” / “I like to straddle.”) When May — who’s had Marcher skip out on her twice, 20 years apart — meets the great love of her life for the third time in their old age, is it really the best idea for Old Marcher, in the person of Friedman, to be actually aged, while May is still the glowing, zero-body-fat Dvorovenko, in glasses and a gray wig? I get the choice logistically, but it also contains a whiff of unpleasantness.
And, most disappointingly, did Thompson really need to give Marcher and his beast a lurid, sobby backstory? After the first encounter between Young Marcher and May — they meet in Naples and enjoy one shining afternoon on a beach near Pompeii — Yazbeck has to sit cowering next to Dvorovenko, haunted and stammering, confessing to her the childhood trauma that started all of this mess about beasts and curses and being inherently unlovable in the first place. I won’t say what it is, but it’s a doozy of a story — like Oliver Twist meets Anna Karenina — and it falls totally flat. For one thing, Yazbeck can’t really sell it: He’s no slouch as an actor, but his natural milieu is charm, not crippling anxiety. For another, it’s garish and unnecessary. James knew that the power of the beast is that it has no reasonable provenance. If can’t be psychoanalyzed away, ascribed to some single inciting emotional wound. It simply is. It’s like the desire for a baby that possesses Lorca’s Yerma, which is beyond rational, beyond psychological, but a mythic, insatiable, spiritual emptiness.
This is what makes The Beast in the Jungle more than another story of a winning, egotistical coward, dancing his way through Italy in the ’60s like a younger, cuter Guido Contini from Nine. But in this production, despite that Great Mystical Fuck, the dark, inchoate mysticism of Marcher’s predicament seems sexed up and simplified. Stroman seems most in her element when the show is buoyant — when Yazbeck is showing off his considerable moves, or when May is swimming through blue silk waves or the women of the ensemble are gracefully flowing in and out of tableaux that echo a study for Matisse’s The Dance (in Thompson’s telling, the painting becomes a kind of emotional talisman for May and Marcher). Her staging of the beast’s ominous intrusions into Marcher’s psyche is sometimes striking — as when Ben Stanton’s flickering lights cast stripes of brightness across a massive, glowering face, its shapes puppeted in the shadows by the black-clad ensemble — and sometimes a little pretty, as when the ensemble surrounds Friedman while waving strips of translucent black silk, in a sequence that feels a bit too much like ribbon-dancing.
In the show’s darkest moments, Yazbeck hurls himself around the stage, face clenched and sweat flying, as he wrestles with his beast. It’s a strange paradox of content and form: Fear and anxiety of the kind James is examining are paralyzing influences — they transfix you and hollow you out, but this John Marcher has got to dance. Even when tormented, Yazbeck’s dancing is a kind of release, a wholeness and freedom and hopefulness that Marcher, and perhaps Henry James, could never bring to fulfillment. And it’s the death of this paradox that might in fact be the production’s most powerful statement: Near the play’s end, Friedman, finally hit with the full impact of Old Marcher’s wasted life, tears the stage apart. He topples and kicks furniture, clumsily raging and staggering and searching for something he’ll never find. Though The Beast in the Jungle suffers under a fair number of tired gender and narrative tropes, in this final image it effectively crystallizes its protagonist’s ultimate failure: He’s forgotten how to dance.
The Beast in the Jungle is at the Vineyard Theatre through June 17.