Henry James specialized in renunciation. An uncounted number of his novels and shorter works end with his heroes and heroines not consummating, for one reason or another, the love affair with which James has tantalized them — and his readers — through the length of the story. The traumatic failure of his 1895 play Guy Domville seems to have been caused, at least in part, by the audience’s unhappiness at seeing the popular leading man George Alexander play a hero who gives up love in favor of religious vocation. In later works, James’s renunciative impulse extended to money and success. The vast fortunes his characters seek vanish or, like the spoils of Poynton, go up in smoke; the wide acclaim to which his artist-heroes aspire turns into a rueful acceptance of their being admired as distinguished failures. In his faintly laughable novel The Sacred Fount (1901), he presents a hero who strives to discover the love affairs that energize all the other guests at a country-house party, only to be mocked at the end for his ridiculously wrongheaded conclusions. It was one of James’s biggest failures.
Two years later, he published the short novel The Beast in the Jungle (1903), out of which choreographer-director Susan Stroman, writer David Thompson, and composer John Kander have now evolved “a dance play” that runs through June 24 at the Vineyard Theater. Their ambition, though commendably lofty, makes them seem almost as misguided as those Jamesian novelist-heroes who keep struggling to turn out best-sellers but succeed only in creating unmarketable masterpieces. Regrettably, Stroman and her colleagues have proceeded in the opposite direction: Striving to create a piece of high art, they’ve ended up with what is, essentially, a less-than-great musical without any songs.
James’s story contains almost no action. Its hero, John Marcher, keeps expecting something catastrophic to happen to him, which never occurs. Eventually he realizes — too late — that his constant renouncing of life’s possibilities has itself been the catastrophe; his fatalistic expectation of the worst has kept him from living. As a philosophic parable, James’s story has huge resonance. Thousands of readers have glimpsed in its eventless near-abstraction some reflection of their own lives, and critics regularly list it among his essential works. But creating a theatrical event in which nothing happens except the realization that nothing has happened is a much tougher challenge. Stroman and her collaborators, whose artistic lives have been spent in the make-it-happen world of the Broadway musical — where creating the immediate object that seizes the audience’s attention is always the goal — are not philosophically equipped to face it.
James’s characters, Londoners living at the very start of the Edwardian era, still carry with them a full set of upper-middle-class Victorian inhibitions. Thompson tries to loosen them by moving the story into a rather hazy late twentieth century, where Marcher is a footloose vagabond in post–World War II Italy who ultimately becomes a wealthy Manhattan art dealer. May, the woman who waits patiently for him to acknowledge their love, becomes in Thompson’s version a penniless Russian girl (though still named May) who acquires fame as a photographer and marries a nouveau-riche billionaire who hires Marcher to decorate their country house.
Though this doesn’t sound far from James territory, the updating makes it increasingly muddled. The Venetian palazzo parties that the young Marcher (Tony Yazbeck) crashes suggest the Twenties rather than the dolce vita era, and the billionaire who keeps a loaded shotgun handy because wild boar sometimes invade his landscaping seems to come out of a Saki short story. One of Matisse’s small studies for his large canvas La Danse, which becomes a sort of emblem of Marcher and May’s unfulfilled love, gets tossed into the theatrical mix, meant to embody the metaphysics of the couple’s hesitant relationship but serving instead to confuse it with an issue of tangible property.
Stroman’s erratic realization of this half-baked script shows a similar uncertainty of purpose. Where a more dramatically expressive choreographer might have lifted some emotional life out of Thompson’s bare text and transformed it into physical gesture, Stroman — whose best choreography has been in comic or decorative divertissements — settles far too often for depressingly routine oversimplifications. When the reluctant lovers finally consummate their affair, she has them roll over and over each other on the floor. (The director-choreographer Martha Clarke’s treatment of Colette’s 1920 novella Chéri, at the Signature Theatre in 2013, was also dramatically inert overall, but its choreographed erotics conveyed far stronger emotions.)
A greater score might have inspired Stroman to finer and more exciting dance work, but Kander, who began his Broadway career turning out dance arrangements of other composers’ tunes, was not the man to provide it. A superb song composer who creates irresistibly catchy melodies when stimulated by a lyric and a situation, he is apparently not a musical artist who thinks so readily in the abstract realm where instrumentalists and footwork also have to fulfill the function of words and voices. (This is not a Broadway-versus-classical issue. In either genre, some composers have the knack and others don’t: Rodgers and Bernstein, yes; Jerome Kern and Cole Porter, no. Offenbach, not really; Delibes, an easy winner.)
For this Beast, Kander has provided a series of carefully crafted developments of a series of mostly uninteresting tunes, largely in waltz time (another element that backdates the piece) to match Stroman’s generally predictable routines. They can count themselves lucky to have the ballerina Irina Dvorovenko in the role of May. Though perhaps not an actress per se, Dvorovenko is a genuine stage personality. Her eyes twinkle, her legs twinkle when she dances, and her spirit appears to twinkle when she walks onstage, whether she is pretending to look at a painting or to be yearningly in love with Yazbeck. Even while suspecting that it’s all pretense, you can’t help feeling the appeal of that twinkling presence.
Yazbeck, who plays the young John Marcher (as well as, briefly, the nephew to whom the older Marcher spills his story), supplies far less sparkle than Dvorovenko. A first-rate dancer who has proved in other shows to be a better-than-passable singer, he projects little presence when called upon to act. Ironically, as we often see him dressed in conservative dark suits and dark shoes against a dark backdrop, the magical effect of his dancing is dimmed; instead we have to concentrate on his largely inexpressive face and flat, uninflected speaking voice. For all the fancy growls and thunder-effects that Kander and sound designer Peter Hylenski have conjured up, Yazbeck seems to carry no fear of anticipated catastrophe in his soul.
Any pang of empathy to be had from Marcher’s story comes from Peter Friedman, the accomplished and infinitely reliable actor who plays the older Marcher. He and Teagle F. Bougere, who plays the billionaire May marries, are alike in one respect: These roles, which they endow with a three-dimensionality not to be found in the words they speak, are too easy for them. Fortunately, we’ve seen them both handle far greater challenges recently: Friedman grappling with the agonizing title role in The Treasurer at Playwrights Horizons; Bougere as the crafty, odious father in Is God Is at Soho Rep. Henry James, who loved the theater and especially the art of acting, would not have failed to admire them and the magical charm of Dvorovenko. The rest of The Beast in the Jungle, however, he might willingly have renounced.