WHAT "The Beast in the Jungle"
WHERE Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th St.
INFO From $85; 212-353-0303, vineyardtheatre.org
BOTTOM LINE A glorious dance drama inspired by a Henry James novella.
A ballet with words? A musical without singing?
The extraordinarily creative people responsible for “The Beast in the Jungle,” now at the Vineyard Theatre, call it a “dance play,” but really it is all of the above. And no matter what you call it, it is glorious.
Inspired by the 1903 Henry James novella, the play brings back one of the Vineyard’s most successful teams — director-choreographer Susan Stroman, David Thompson (book) and John Kander (music). It’s a sad tale of love lost and lost opportunities, a memory play in which art dealer John Marcher (Peter Friedman) reveals to his nephew (Tony Yazbeck) how he’s so haunted by presumably hereditary demons (his “beast”), that he’s unable to pursue a lasting relationship with the ethereal May (Irina Dvorovenko).
We first see the two men as Marcher returns from a funeral, and while we do not know who died, a foreboding gloom hangs over all that follows. In flashbacks, the nephew becomes the young Marcher, a cad who plays the field with abandon until May catches his eye. We follow them over many years, always wary of an appearance by the beast, stunningly portrayed by six dancers (think of them as a Greek chorus of movement).
Kander has chosen to tell the story through a series of waltzes — some gay, some melancholy — and Stroman turns them into an eclectic mix of dances, from tarantella-like folk pieces to an amusing take on musical chairs. Dvorovenko, formerly a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, is wonderful to watch, bringing so much emotion to her dancing. And she gets the chance that often eludes ballerinas— she speaks. Yazbeck, known for his Broadway dance roles in shows such as “On the Town,” is gripping as he fights off the panic brought on by the beast.
The play ends with a potentially uplifting breakthrough for the young nephew, a man who might have demons of his own. But then — and this is what makes the piece relatable — don’t we all?