The temptation to adapt outstanding novels for the stage is understandable. Two daunting tasks have already been done for the dramatist: Fully conceived characters and sturdy narrative are undoubtedly, and often gloriously, in place. The playwright, acting more as empathetic editor than writer, only needs to strip away the descriptive prose or turn it into dialogue. Presto change-o! A worthwhile theater piece.

With an epic novel, of course, there may be plenty that needs trimming. Figures and events considered in the circumstances to be extraneous get the hook. They hit the cutting-room floor by reams -- that is, unless the playwright at work is someone like David Edgar, the piece of fiction is Charles Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby, and the producing outfit is the Royal Shakespeare Company with enough time and money to mount an eight-hour event. Or maybe someone like Paul Sills is on hand with workable ideas about how to establish viable story-theater conventions. Or there might be available a Laurie Anderson, who thumbs through Herman Melville's Moby Dick and finds ways to offer an intriguing spin on the material -- not so much an adaptation as a theatrical variation.

The job is tougher than it looks, even for those who think it can and will be tough. This might be something that the adaptors of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children now understand. Simon Reade, billed as the dramaturg, and director Tim Supple are the primary movers and shakers of the not terribly moving and quite shaky treatment of the 1981 Booker Prize Winner that's now playing at the Apollo Theatre. Ostensibly, they knew what they were letting themselves in for, as they've each undertaken similar projects in the past. Together, they devised a Tales From Ovid for the Young Vic a few years ago that was as engaging and, more to the point, as manageable as Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses.

Supple and Reade, it turns out, have Rushdie's blessing. They've based their Midnight's Children on a British tele-version that Rushdie prepared some years back but which collapsed before shooting began. Therefore, the author himself is to some extent responsible for the well-meaning shambles that is this three-and-a-half-hour-long piece. As a consequence of Rushdie's complicity, the question is raised as to how much he underestimates the manner in which he structured his inspired book about India in the 31 years after it regained independence at midnight on August 15, 1947. The work not only sprawls across northern India and into Pakistan, including city populations and armies too numerous to reduce to feasible stage tableaux; it also stretches from realism to surrealism, from hard-hitting reports on real events to hard-hitting flights of fantasy.

If Rushdie doesn't realize the importance of structuring the story with all his decorative features, his protagonist, Saleem Sinai, does. More than once in the 533-page novel, Saleem complains about the pressure he feels to give a chronological account of his travails. In a passage that doesn't seem to have made the script cut, he comments: "I have become, it seems to me, the apex of an isosceles triangle, supported equally by twin deities, the wild god of memory and the lotus-goddess of the present...but must I now become reconciled to the narrow one-dimensionality of a straight line?" (The ellipsis is Rushdie's.)

Apparently, one-dimensionality is precisely the condition to which the stage Saleem (Zubin Varla) has to reconcile himself. Although he narrates a flashback to his own birth and even to his grandfather's courtship of his grandmother, he tells his story almost entirely in linear terms. There's a lot of story to tell, the high points of which include: his being substituted in the crib for another child born at the stroke of midnight, his life with his parents and how he's affected when they learn his blood type matches neither of theirs, his discovery that the voices of the other 581 surviving children of midnight have begun to buzz continuously in his head, his sojourns in Pakistan with his family and without them, and his subsequent young adulthood.

A scene from Midnights Children
A scene from Midnights Children
Unfolding the tall and long tale, Reade and Supple retain most of the pivotal events. Stuff them in is another way to say it. As much as possible, they keep Saleem's expressions. The hapless boy with a "cucumber nose," undergoes unusually harsh growing pains -- his sufferings meant, of course, as metaphor for the growing pains India and Pakistan endured in the years after 1947. Saleem is battered and bloodied by, for instance, an over-enthusiastic teacher; later he loses part of a finger. And that's only a part of it. Following Rushdie's lead, Supple and Reade have their besieged hero running here and there like an Eastern Forrest Gump so that through him the story of a besieged nation is covered in two hectic acts.

But is what they're on about clear? On the page Rushdie's text is confusing enough. To begin with, the switcheroo pulled at Saleem's birth by a nurse called Mary Pereira takes a certain amount of concentration to get straight, and there may be Rushdie partisans who still haven't. Given the demands Rushdie puts on readers, it's entirely likely that as episode follows episode in the Supple-Reade adaptation, audience members unacquainted with the novel are only able to follow a small percentage of the action. As everything washes over them, they may be feeling the whole enterprise is a wash, is a skimpy spectacle.

Throughout, twenty actors swiftly come and go in upwards of 90 parts. Behind them on the spare set is a large two-part screen on which are projected old newsreels as well as, from time to time, footage of the production's cast observing ceremonies and rituals perhaps too complex to be done live. Melly Still designed, choreographed the offering, and served as video director with sound director John Leonard. Lighting Designer Bruno Poet does wonders with the stage lighting. The video segments also feature cast members as the children whose murmurs Saleem hears taunting and guiding him.

In the frenzy, Zubin Varla as Saleem stands out for obvious reasons. On stage almost without a break as both narrator and lead, he's indefatigably athletic. Often he wears a determined half-smile beneath what is presumably a false nose even longer than Nicole Kidman's in The Hours. The proboscis is also much runnier than Virginia Woolf's, since Rushdie provides Saleem with symbolic nasal congestion that requires him to snort repeatedly. Just another one or the unusual requirements Varla supplies so generously to the lengthy role. Sameena Zehra as Padma, to whom Saleem reveals his past, is effective, as is the hard working ensemble, forever changing the now-colorful, now-drab costumes that Melly Still has provided. When cast members have to play children, however, the results aren't so spicy.

One aspect of Salman Rushdie's writing that often goes unheralded is his sense of humor. He flaunts it through most of his novels, and that includes the controversial Satanic Verses. Unsurprisingly, it's lost here. Also characteristic of him are central characters who are fiercely intelligent, deeply conflicted and prone to show-off. A reader might guess that those are autobiographical attributes. Since Rushdie has so much to show off, however, his inclination to do so is not only acceptable but appreciated. But neither he nor Supple and Reade show him off well here. This Midnight's Children is no longer a supple read.