Irina Dvorovenko and Tony Yazbeck in ‘The Beast in the Jungle.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Loosely based on Henry James’ 1903 novella of the same name, Vineyard Theatre has gathered what would appear to be a coveted team of artists to reimagine The Beast in the Jungle as a dance play. While the core talent of director/choreographer Susan Stroman, along with music by John Kander and book by David Thompson is evident, this particular venture lacks cohesion that can’t be tamed.
John Marcher (Peter Friedman) has just returned from a funeral when his nephew (Tony Yazbeck) arrives unannounced after a riff with his girlfriend. The clunky conversation provides a framework and flashback to explore Marcher’s longtime (and unresolved) relationship with May Bertram (Irina Dvorovenko).
Turn back the clock to 1968 when John and May meet in Naples, Italy. (John, now being played by Yazbeck). After a romantic tryst on the beach, John’s fear of intimacy—his beast—drives him away from what might very well be his one true love. The pair crosses paths 20 years later in the Cotswolds, England. John is now working as an art dealer, and by coincidence, her husband is a collector. The flame is rekindled, and once again, John is overcome by a psychological force that prohibits their union. In their third and final meeting—now 30 years later—May has become a successful photographer and her work is on exhibition in New York City. They fondly reconnect, but time has run out and their final union is not meant to be.
Kander’s “waltz-inspired instrumental score” is melodic and appropriately melancholy, but neutralizes the decade- and destination-spanning scope of the action. There is very little that imbues Part One with a sense of 1960s Italy. (Listen to Patty Pravo’s 1968 summer hit “La bambola” for a sultry taste of what was popular at the time.) The same is true for the latter sections, which also feel musically restricted. Kander, whose vast musical theater credits include Cabaret, Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and The Scottsboro Boys, instead, has created a musical vocabulary that parallels John’s psychological demise. In short, it feels stuck.
Thompson’s book leaves Friedman often saddled with a reflective narrative, which the Tony-nominated actor does his best to deliver. It is only in the play’s last section when John and May reconnect 50 years after their first meeting that the dialogue really comes to life, followed by John’s crumbling monologue where he recognizes his inner demons.
See, I have primal doubts. No, no. I have a beast. Yes! A beast! A beast that will one day destroy me – and anyone I’m with – as completely as if we both just jumped in front of a train.
But The Beast in the Jungle’s most primal moments are told through dance. Stroman’s decade-spanning career as a director/choreographer includes 16 Broadway shows (not to mention a brilliantly hilarious production of Young Frankenstein now playing on London’s West End). With Yazbeck and Dvorovenko (a principal dancer with American Ballet Theater for 14 years) as her muses, along with a female ensemble of six dancers, Stroman doesn’t necessarily break new ground in terms of the art form but certainly showcases her performers’ exceptional abilities. Yazbeck shows glimmers of Gene Kelly through his muscular, athletic movement, but the venue feels too small for him at times, with a performance that occasionally feels presentational. Dvorovenko, on the other hand, exhibits restraint and an efficiency of movement that is nothing short of captivating. And if you think this dancer can’t act, think again. Her final scene with Friedman is the play’s most authentic moment.
Michael Curry’s scenic design is suggestive to afford ample dance space on the Vineyard’s intimate stage while utilizing ethereal costumes in conjunction with Ben Stanton’s lighting design to create a mythical and consuming sense of the Beast’s presence. But these fleeting moments of theatricality aren’t quite enough to stir fire in the belly.
This beast in the jungle is still on the hunt. It hasn’t quite found its lair.
The Beast in the Jungle
108 East 15th Street, NYC
Through June 17
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.