By Michael Hillyer
Veteran Broadway director/choreographer Susan Stroman’s new dance play, now playing at The Vineyard Theatre and inspired by the 1903 Henry James novella, The Beast In The Jungle, features a new score composed by John Kander and a book by David Thompson. But The Beast In The Jungle is not a musical. There are no lyrics; there is no singing. It is a long one-act, interspersed with dialogue scenes and danced musical interludes. What else can you call it, other than a dance play?
Unlike the 1999 smash hit, Contact, Susan Stroman’s prior, trail-blazing work in this unusual theatrical category, The Beast In The Jungle has a traditional story to tell. But it is difficult to say why anyone would consider Henry’s James’s well-regarded, cautionary tale about lost love, and of a life wasted, to be a natural launching pad for a new musical theatre/dance project. It is a moody, gloomy piece, and for its self-absorbed and regretful protagonist, John Marcher, things do not turn out very well.
The action is set mainly in the past and performed as a series of flashbacks. An elderly New York art dealer, Marcher (Peter Freidman) is surprised by the unexpected, late-night intrusion of his Nephew (Tony Yazbeck), who has been thrown out of his apartment because he won’t commit to marry the woman he lives with. He could hardly have intruded upon an uncle less inclined to lend him sympathy as well as a couch to sleep on; John Marcher has been there and done that, and so, over the table of his New York apartment, he begins his sad tale of woe.
As a young man, abroad in Naples during the 1960’s, he had his pick of many young women, but fell hard for the one who did not succumb so easily to his charms, the beautiful May Bartram (Irina Dvorovenko). As their story plays out, over decades and continents, it is clear that she is also in love with him, but he lets the opportunity go, only to meet her again, many years later, married and living with her husband on an estate in south-west England. In spite of the constant presence of her rifle-toting husband, they flirt and pine and come together for a second time. But this provokes an intense sense of dread and impending doom in Marcher, triggering his life-long fear of that “beast in the jungle” that is waiting for him – that fated catastrophe that is certain to end his life – that he is for a second time unable to commit to May, and flees. Their third meeting, recently and in New York, has produced a more rueful reunion, as time has now caught up with them, and overtaken them.
Teagle F. Bougere brings gravitas and complexity to the role of the Husband, and a deep sense of loss to the smaller role of the Stranger, who is mourning his late wife at her graveside. Peter Freidman provides a solid presence as the elder Marcher, weaving in and out of the action as a sort of narrator to his own past life, while providing a believable portrait of the man he has turned out to be in the present. His nephew/younger self is played by the athletic Tony Yazbeck, an extraordinary dancer whom audiences will remember from his Tony-nominated turn in On The Town. As the love of his life, May Bartram, the amazing Irina Dvorovenko is simply sensational. The two of them dance together beautifully, and it is a decided pleasure to watch them perform in such intimate quarters, on the Vineyard’s tiny stage.
The production elements are quite fine, as is Ms. Stroman’s staging, even if constrained somewhat by the smallish environs of The Vineyard, but the dancing is what you should go to see, if you can snag a ticket. Although the sum of its parts may not add up completely into a powerful theatrical whole, the parts themselves are alone well worth the price of admission.
The Beast In The Jungle, A Dance Play with Music by John Kander, Book by David Thompson, Directed and Choreographed by Susan Stroman. Scenic & Costume Design, Michael Curry, Lighting Design, Ben Stanton, Sound Design Peter Hylenski, Music Direction Greg Jarrett. Through June 17 at The Vineyard Theatre, 108 West 15th Street, NYC. Tickets: http://www.vineyardtheatre.org/tickets/now-on-sale/