The ancient Greek god Bacchus, or Dionysus, has a lot in common with Christianity’s Devil. Notoriously tricky, sexually ambiguous, flamboyant, temperamental, and often violently vindictive, he loves to lure human beings into situations where they’re likely to lose control and do something embarrassingly self-destructive. The god of wine, theater, and ecstatic dancing, he doesn’t care how much you participate in his rituals, but is known to be extremely snarky about failures to acknowledge his power. Refuse to worship him at your peril.
The Greek solution to Dionysiac excesses was to balance a healthy respect for the ecstasies he aroused with an equally respectful piety toward rationality and righteousness. Athens’s annual tragedy festival was sacred to Dionysus, but it began with a big parade around the city, stopping at shrines to praise its patron goddess, Athena, the girl-child born out of Zeus’s brain. Dionysus, in contrast, was born out of the god’s groin, rescued from his mortal mother’s womb when she burned to death at the sight of Zeus in his blazing glory. Balance was the Greeks’ only solution to the struggle of groin and brain.
Christianity, of course, invented an escape clause by making “love” a spiritual concept that had nothing to do with the stirrings of the groin. Though meant to steer believers onto the religion’s fundamentally ascetic path, the concept opened the door to all kinds of earthly shiftiness. Unlike that nasty absolutist Bacchus, the Devil could be outwitted if you loved someone enough, or if someone loved you enough, or even if (Satan being every bit as quirky as Dionysus) you could spot a flaw in the wording of your agreement with him. Some folk tales show sturdy individual souls defeating him by means of sheer stubbornness.
The 1955 Broadway musical Damn Yankees and Euripides’ Bacchae make a neatly parallel pair of fables about the danger of dealing with this otherworldly tempter. Damn Yankees, revived for a summer run in City Center’s Encores! series, produces the far more pleasant results, both because of the optimism inherent in its American approach and because its makers know how to get good results from its material. The Bacchae, brought by the National Theatre of Scotland to the Lincoln Center Festival in a production by John Tiffany, is a far less happy play to start with, and Tiffany’s unwise choices afflicted it with even unhappier results. Whatever you think of Greek tragedy, the one thing it doesn’t deserve is to be reduced to ineffectuality.
Damn Yankees is built on the polarizing gender divisions of Eisenhower-era American culture. It opens with a wife futilely attempting conversation while her husband watches a baseball game on TV, and the scene flowers into a contrapuntal dispute—which Euripides would have found perfectly understandable—between warring choruses of resentful, baseball-widowed wives and their oblivious, baseball-addicted husbands. It’s Washington, D.C., and the middle-aged suburban hero, Joe Boyd (P.J. Benjamin), who played sandlot ball as a kid, vows he’d sell his soul to see the Senators take the pennant away from the perpetually first-place Yanks. By no coincidence whatsoever, a mysteriously sociable stranger named Applegate (Sean Hayes) walks in. Before you know it, old Joe Boyd has magically become muscular young Joe Hardy (Cheyenne Jackson), the super-athlete from nowhere, who swings a bat that’s literally out of hell. Soon, the Senators are giving the Yankees a run for their money.
Joe makes a frustrating target, though, for satanic temptations; all he wants to do is help the Senators win and go back to his wife and home. This gave the show a chance to tantalize its 1950s audience with veiled sexual fantasies: Old Joe’s wife (Randy Graff) can feel drawn to young Joe, as he’s really her husband in another form. When Applegate tries to tempt Joe into infidelity with his operative Lola (Jane Krakowski), the ballplayer’s resistance is so dumbly virtuous that she falls for him instead. Naturally, Applegate’s connivings all land short: The Senators nab the American League title with a last-minute miracle, and a reconverted, repentant old Joe goes back to his dear old wife—presumably to sit in his favorite chair, oblivious to her hectoring, while he watches his pet team lose the World Series.
A puckish smile-producer rather than a gut-grabber, Damn Yankees shows you how good a second-drawer show could be in 1955: The Adler-Ross score, which nobody would rank with South Pacific or Gypsy, deservedly notched three of its numbers onto the era’s hit parade. The title of one, “Whatever Lola Wants,” became a national catchphrase. What transfigured the workable material in 1955 was the collaboration of choreographer Bob Fosse and newly anointed star Gwen Verdon. The revival has its toughest struggle in precisely their area: Mary McLeod’s recreation of Fosse’s choreography has all the finger-pops and body rolls down pat, but lacks the human touches that make choreography more than abstract motion. Krakowski’s sexiness, too, is slightly abstract; funny-faced Verdon, with her wry grin, could tease you with sex and simultaneously spoof it. Krakowski’s strongest in her moments of pathos, late in the action, which give impetus to her best dancing of the evening, in “Two Lost Souls.”
Hayes’s Applegate has a similarly divided effect. His spoken lines lie flat in the air; his goofy physicality (and his unexpected piano playing) add a touch of the flair the material sometimes lacks. But the evening’s pretty much stolen away from the stars when Graff’s wide eyes respond as Jackson’s warm baritone starts casting its spell. John Rando’s production keeps the show’s mild comic pizzazz rolling pleasantly along, but the wistful romance is its strongest suit.
The Bacchae, alas, displayed no such strengths. There was a neat fire effect, so placed as to make the most important scenes feel anticlimactic. Tiffany seemed to have conceived the staging as a series of effects with no connection to each other, as if Euripides had been writing early treatments for music videos rather than a drama. Such meanings as The Bacchae offers today can’t be grasped that glibly. Devil or Dionysus, the theater’s god is a tricky fellow to handle.