All theater tells fairy tales; even a documentary play is a sort of fairy tale, arranging reality to fit the way its audiences, or its makers, desire to see it. The jumbled weekend that brought Mary Poppins, an explicit fairy tale full of magical happenings, into reviewers’ lives at the same time as those more adult tales sprinkled with a different sort of fairy dust, The Little Dog Laughed and Suddenly Last Summer, made me ponder the ways and means of enchantment, as well as its uses, for today’s hard-nosed, careworn urban audiences. What myths do we tell our children? What myths do we tell ourselves? And how much of either do we really want to believe?
Mary Poppins offers a handy illustration of the way myths evolve, even when copyrighted. An inheritance from an earlier urban civilization, Edwardian England, it’s a triply transmogrified hand-me-down. P. L. Travers, who published the first of her
Mary Poppins books in 1934, was Australia-born, raised with a more aggressive, and slightly more outdated, sense of Englishness than English children of her time. She was also something of a mystic, a poet and follower of Gurdjieff, with some expertise in comparative mythology.
Mary Poppins blends motifs from the children’s classics of the generation preceding Travers’s (Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and E. Nesbit’s books are significant influences) with a sense of propriety and rectitude stemming from an Australian child’s notion of buttoned-up Edwardian mores. Far from the smiling creature embodied by Julie Andrews in the Disney film and by Ashley Brown in the current stage version, Travers’s Mary is sharp-edged, plain, and often downright impudent, a maternal disciplinarian who is also, paradoxically, a giddy escapist child.
Travers’s Mary sets the topsy-turvy Banks household in order, not by showering its five undisciplined children with the affection they’ve been lacking, but by endowing them, through her magic, with a sense of awe at the mystery of life. Disney’s screenwriters, a generation later, reduced the number of children to two and modified the message with a dose of feel-good à la Dr. Spock: Family affection and laughter are the spoonfuls of sugar that make the bitter medicine of life go down more smoothly. Julian Fellowes’s book for the new stage version tries, not always successfully, to balance the acid-drop tang of Travers with the Disney sweetness, taking motifs from the books and weaving them back into a reconfigured edition of the movie’s plot, with the Sherman Brothers’ score reworked and augmented with new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. In one episode, George Banks nearly loses his bank job because he authorizes a loan to a little-guy manufacturer rather than to an international financier with a shady scheme. When the manufacturer’s business booms and the shady scheme collapses, George, having saved the bank from disaster, gets his job back at a vastly increased salary. That the show should celebrate this mode of fiscal humanism at a time when megacorporations like Disney are engulfing small businesses and cutting or outsourcing jobs left and right is not without irony.
But the new Mary Poppins is about equally full of unintended ironies and intended diversions. A lengthy evening (two hours, 45 minutes) for a work that appeals primarily to children, it has a layered look, jumbling the prim Edwardian fun of Travers’s original up against the splashy one-dimensional cheeriness of mid-’60s Disney and a coarse but sometimes campy contemporary sensibility that uses Edwardian music-hall styles with a knowing, 21st-century wink. The quintessence of this latter mode is Matthew Bourne’s choreography, full of a generalized, busily gesticulative fun that makes the big chorus numbers tend to look exactly like one another. Generalization, in fact, is the show’s central problem: Few of its characters seem to have more than one trait each (the very notable exceptions are Rebecca Luker’s Mrs. Banks and Gavin Lee’s Bert); everybody lapses on demand into the same rowdy screaming; and Daniel Jenkins is desperately overparted as Mr. Banks, depicted as a cartoon domestic martinet except when inexplicably melting into a puddle of sentimental goo. Ashley Brown, the Mary, sings and smiles enchantingly, but her acting shifts, centerless, between Disney’s and Travers’s view of the role; Ruth Gottschall nearly steals the show from her during a brief turn as Miss Andrew, a sort of anti-Poppins nasty nanny. Amid a lot of less-than-effective effects, there’s one spectacular stunt, Bert’s upside-down dance; the production also boasts a cunning variant of the “balcony fly” invented by Eva Le Gallienne for Peter Pan‘s curtain call. You can’t say the makers of Mary Poppins haven’t pondered the material and its sources (one entire number is essentially a condensed version of the Ravel-Colette L’enfant et les sortiléges), but what they ultimately decided to do with it, other than create a lot of cheerful, moneymaking noise, remains unclear. Travers’s heroine is as randomly adrift in their show as if she were still windborne on her umbrella.
Douglas Carter Beane’s The Little Dog Laughed, like many previous “sophisticated” Broadway comedies, is really a fractured fairy tale, the wryly “happy” ending of which is meant to make us feel sad. True love and a healthy embrace of natural instincts have been foiled, after all; the money machine and its manufactured personalities win. But don’t let that worry you: The romantic side of Beane’s fairy tale is based on such unlikely premises—closeted movie star finds his one big chance for true love in sensitive, well-educated hustler—that you couldn’t have expected to get much satisfaction from it. Instead, Beane proffers a highly gratifying alternative gratification, in hearty helpings, between the scenes of budding gay romance: the hero’s agent, a motormouthed tower of cynicism who wouldn’t dream of letting a little thing like her client’s sexuality block her career path. Beane has a genuine flair for this mode of machine-gun comedy writing, and Julie White, who delivers his Kalashnikov stream of lethal one-liners, has both perfect aim and the total commitment of a dedicated jungle fighter. Critics’ approval is all well and good, but the 10 full seconds of sustained applause that salute White on her exit from the show’s climactic scene constitute the best review I’ve heard anyone except Christine Ebersole get in the theater for some years.
No such applause greets the less lucky Carla Gugino despite her impassioned, voluptuous reading of the long monologue that closes Suddenly Last Summer, Tennessee Williams’s Southern Gothic horror tale about a parvenu princess trapped, first in her rich Prince Charming’s decadent self-destructiveness, and then, after his death, in his mother’s queenly desire to suppress the evidence. Feverish, a little silly, and awkwardly structured, Williams’s tale has never really carried the effectiveness its powerful undercurrents demand, and Mark Brokaw’s stilted, gelid production has removed most of the little it does carry. And Santo Loquasto’s set, which buries the Venable mansion in rainforest, seems permanently at odds with Brokaw’s staging. The feistiness of Blythe Danner as the wealthy mother shines through her vocal difficulties, but Gale Harold, as the troubled brain doctor, provides only eye candy and woodenness. Gugino’s fierceness cuts through much of the deadly overgrowth, but it’s a futile effort. In this jungle, even the Venus flytraps have no snap.