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Fear, Love, and The Beast in the Jungle

The team behind The Scottsboro Boys returns to Vineyard Theatre with a new dance play.

Tony Yazbeck stars in John Kander and David Thompson's The Beast in the Jungle, directed by Susan Stroman, at Vineyard Theatre.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Something terrible lurks in the darkness of Vineyard Theatre, where John Kander and David Thompson's The Beast in the Jungle is making its world premiere. Inspired by the Henry James novella about a life governed by fear and inaction, that terrible thing should be a creeping sense of recognition and terror. Unfortunately, it is all too often just a beast that devours our time while offering little in return.

It's a disappointing miss from the group that last came together at Vineyard to create the groundbreaking musical, The Scottsboro Boys: composer John Kander, book writer David Thompson, and director-choreographer Susan Stroman. The late lyricist Fred Ebb (with whom Kander composed Cabaret and Chicago) is the most notable absence, and one that feels consequential: Instead of a book musical, The Beast in the Jungle is billed as a "dance play," with scenes of dialogue embellished by Stroman's athletic choreography. Rarely has a show with this amount of virtuosic dance moved so sluggishly.

Tony Yazbeck and Peter Friedman both play the fearful protagonist of The Beast in the Jungle.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Some of that is endemic to the source material, which is about as thrilling as a collection of run-on sentences about wasted time can be. Thompson has departed from the original story in significant ways to both expand its scope and offer a counterpoint to its protagonist, John Marcher (Peter Friedman). At the beginning of the play, Marcher has just returned home from the cemetery to find an unexpected guest, his nephew (Tony Yazbeck, who removes his glasses like Clark Kent to portray the younger version of Marcher during the flashback scenes that make up the bulk of the play).

Marcher insists that he is being stalked by a beast, which is why he never allowed himself to get close to the woman he loved, the artist May Bertram (Irina Dvorovenko). He recalls the numerous squandered opportunities, from their 1968 meeting in Naples to their last encounter at her 2017 retrospective, titled "Time: The Luxury We Throw Away" (in case anyone is confused about the theme). Oedipus-like, Marcher fortifies his life against his prophesied beast, only to discover that he walled it in with him.

May (Irina Dvorovenko) and John (Tony Yazbeck) lock eyes over a Matisse study in The Beast in the Jungle.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Marcher's story has the potential to shake the soul by turning the commonplace into the mythic. Regrettably, Thompson's treatment makes it feel more like a made-for-TV cautionary tale for the middle-aged and adrift. By filling in some of the blanks left by James, Thompson also undermines the story: In order to explain how May keeps reappearing in his life, Thompson makes Marcher an art dealer. Even with an actor as convincing as Friedman, we find it difficult to reconcile Marcher's aversion to risk with a job that pays entirely on commission.

At least there's decent underscoring to distract us from these inconsistencies: 91 years old and still composing complex yet accessible melodies, John Kander is the American theater's very own Giuseppe Verdi. He has written a succession of sinister waltzes during which an aging Marcher dances with the six women of the ensemble, who ably embody a lifetime of casual encounters. Frustratingly, these moments are marred by Thompson's cringeworthy couplets: "Meet me at the Gabinetto Segreto," a coquette whispers to Marcher, who responds, "I won't forget-oh!"

Stroman fills the stage with her eclectic story-focused choreography. She has a powerhouse lead in Yazbeck, who is one of the most electrifying dancers in America. Watching him is a treat on its own. His chemistry with Dvorovenko (former principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre) is palpable, even if it tends to evaporate when the dancing stops.

Irina Dvorovenko plays May Bertram, and Tony Yazbeck plays Young Marcher in The Beast in the Jungle.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Scenic designer Michael Curry has wisely left the stage fairly unencumbered, relying mostly on moving screens that Stroman has sleekly incorporated into her staging. Curry's costumes support both the movement and the time period. Ben Stanton's creepy lighting and Peter Hylenski's terrifying sound design give us the most visceral sense of Marcher's paralyzing fear. We hear what sounds like churning, crunching bone on metal and we suddenly understand Marcher's impulse to run from the jaws of the beast. If just a dull undertone of that existential dread could be sustained throughout the piece, we might be on the edge of our seats.

Perhaps inadvertently, The Beast in the Jungle does leave us grappling with its themes in a real way: We exit the theater imagining all the things we could have done with the preceding 105 minutes.