Theater review by Adam Feldman
The Beast in the Jungle has been adapted from a Henry James novella in the sense that roadkill might be said to be adapted from a deer. Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman from a script by David Thompson, the show squashes James’s elegant psychological study of repression into a vulgar, banal and laborious dance play. It has the guts to fail big, and those guts wind up everywhere.
The central character, John Marcher—played at different stages of his life by Peter Friedman and Tony Yazbeck—is not haunted, as in James, by an unspeakable fear of impending disaster; as we learn from the start, he is merely a footloose lothario in search of “the Great Mystical Fuck,” and his flirtations with interchangeable women are rendered in shockingly lame rhyming couplets. (She: “Meet me at the Gabinetto Segreto.” He: “I won’t forget-oh!”) Marcher’s potential lifeline to romantic depth is May (erstwhile American Ballet Theatre principal Irina Dvorovenko), with whom he bonds as a young man over a study of Matisse’s The Dance, since another choice of painting might have been insufficiently trite. “It wasn’t the Matisse,” Marcher overexplains. “It was May. She was the work of art.” But each time he gets close to committing to her—in this version, it’s a pair of melodramatic episodes rather than a lifetime of denial—he suffers panic attacks of ugly story-theater puppetry.
Long and wordless sequences of balletic dance, on which the great Broadway composer John Kander has wasted an original suite of attractive waltzes, provide relief from the narrative, which now includes a sex scene in a library, a bathetic backstory for Marcher and a pat learning opportunity for his nephew at the end. But the respite is never enough. The beast is always there, lurking. The beast is in the play.
Vineyard Theatre (Off Broadway). Music by John Kander. Book by David Thompson. Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman. With Peter Friedman, Tony Yazbeck, Irina Dvorovenko. Running time: 1hr 50mins. No intermission.