Nathan Lane in The Frogs(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Nathan Lane in The Frogs
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
That underground rumbling you hear is not caused by Aristophanes spinning in his grave over what Nathan Lane has done to what, in 1974, Burt Shevelove and Stephen Sondheim did to the Attic playwright's prize-winning comedy The Frogs. It's more likely the sound of the seminal comic writer falling about laughing in his obscure tomb. And that barely audible clacking noise may be the original author applauding the fact that Lane and director/choreographer Susan Stroman have honored the spirit, if not every letter, of the prolix play that's come down to us from 405 B.C.E.

Since Aristophanes's comprehensive biography has yet to be written and little is known about exactly what The Frogs looked like when it was introduced to the clamoring Athenians -- weary after 26 years of the Peloponnesian War -- only guesses can be made about the various Frogs production conceits and conventions. One guess is that the playwright threw lots of topical jokes in with the fart gags and with the higher-falutin' late scenes in which he contrived a debate between Aeschylus and Euripides. He was out to entertain restless patrons from moment to moment, not to give them polished product. Since the early sketch writer couldn't foresee that dramatists would eventually get around to the notion of a well-made play, he was probably more concerned with getting theatergoers to slap their thighs than with scrupulously creating narrative conflict.

In expanding the earlier, hour-long Shevelove-Sondheim version of The Frogs that was presented in and around Yale's Payne-Whitney pool, Lane has adopted Aristophanes's approach. "Have you ever heard of dramatic tension?" Charon asks in one of the plot's Styx-crossing sequences. The line is undoubtedly there so that Lane -- playing the addled yet determined protagonist Dionysos, god of drama and wine -- can signal that he's aware of what he's doing and is going to keep doing it. He's also aware of what Sondheim's doing and ready to acknowledge that as well: At one point, in the middle of an intricate lyric, Dionysos says to his crooning slave, Xanthias, "You can stop rhyming right there."

Aristophanes's notion was to have Dionysos travel to the netherworld with sidekick Xanthias (Roger Bart) in order to retrieve a savior for their assailed country. It's a desultory journey they make, necessitating a visit to Herakles (Burke Moses) for tips on Hades travel. Pointed towards the river Styx, they encounter Charon (John Byner), who drops from the sky in his dilapidated rig. Though attacked by his nemeses, a pack of frogs, Dionysus eventually reaches Hades and prevails on the presiding Pluto (Peter Bartlett) to allow him to bring back either Bernard Shaw (Daniel Davis) or William Shakespeare (Michael Siberry), who are pitted against one another in a can-you-top-this contest. One of them will show the citizens how to resolve their plight.

Lane puts a seemingly endless barrage of jokes into the mouths of a number of gifted comics in this production. He's so facile at keeping the punch lines flying in a good joke/bad joke ratio of roughly three to one that he frequently accomplishes the challenging task of building a joke on a joke on a joke. He understands Aristophanes fully: Nothing is sacred but the underlying polemical message. The actor-writer bases that presumption on his long-ago predecessor's worry about a war that demoralized his fellow citizens. Lane sees the similarity between fourth-century Greece and the current Iraqi situation and wants to update Aristophanes's satire as a means of encouraging today's audience not to be frogs -- i.e., a population sitting idly by while grievous injustices occur daily.

However, there's a drawback to his method that crimps the tuner and mitigates the effectiveness of Stephen Sondheim's score, which has been supplemented with a handful of fresh ditties and is sometimes hampered by a Sondheimian patter-song sameness. (The obsessive rhymester does match "literate" with "atwitter, it" -- surely a songwriting first.) The problem is that today's audiences have definitely heard of dramatic tension, and Lane doesn't take the awareness into sufficient account. He states his purpose in a late speech: "They rushed into this war for reasons that keep changing according to their need," Dionysos insists of the Greek leaders, "and there is no end in sight." Lane's allusions are clear but the statement comes at a point when the spectators are wondering why they're watching something about going to Hell that doesn't seem to be going anywhere. Had Dionysos's impassioned declaration been placed at the top of the play, we'd have known why Lane gathered us together with such urgency. We would have been more forgiving of his accumulating comic digressions and his addition to the plot of an extraneous love affair between Dionysos and the mythical Ariadne.

Peter Bartlett and company in The Frogs(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Peter Bartlett and company in The Frogs
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Nevertheless, Lane -- here playing a comic role not previously associated with Zero Mostel -- confirms his status as a surpassing stage clown. Adorable as ever but not pushing it, he commands this show like the god of comedy. Perhaps he overuses the trick where his face drains of expression as he listens to someone say something foolish; still, he owns the stage. Those around him maintain his high low-comedy standards. Roger Bart, who replaced Chris Kattan late in previews, uses his devilish smile as a grace note to his dialogue. Jon Byner plays Charon as a deadpan burlesque character, and it pays off. Burke Moses's Herakles is impressive both in terms of comedic skill and physique -- and can that boy sing! Peter Bartlett takes charge of Pluto as if he's going to win the Cyril Ritchard sweepstakes or bust. The towering Pia C. Glenn is hilarious in the small but torrid part of a licentious Amazon called Virilla.

Always ready to put actors and dancers through demanding paces, Susan Stroman hits a peak with a frogs ballet wherein the leap-frogging has the bounce that we know Sondheim favors. She whirls the Three Graces (Meg Gillentine, Jessica Howard, Naomi Kakuk) as if they're a center-ring aerial act. (AntiGravity gets program credit for assistance.) She even sends hellish flames soaring, with special effects help from Gregory Meeh. Also pitching in with pizzazz are set designer Giles Cadle, lighting designer Kenneth Posner (who produces a turbulent creme-de-menthe sea), costume designer William Ivey Long, and sound designer Scott Lehrer. Long's wittiest creation is a masked fur that Dionysos throws over himself when attempting to pass for Herakles; the piece pokes good-natured fun at The Lion King. And Long undoubtedly had great fun in his atelier coming up with looks for the marauding frogs.

Among Lane the librettist's catalog of throwaway lines, there's one that mentions Viagra, the god of perseverance. Well, Viagra must have been watching over this production: Its journey to opening night has been as circuitous and obstacle-ridden as Dionysos's to Hades. But here it is, warts and all. Once again, Viagra brings satisfying results.