Review: Dirty Dancing to Henry James in ‘The Beast in the Jungle’

Posted May 23, 2018 8:29 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Tony Yazbeck is a rarity in show business. He’s a complete, romantic dancing actor, or acting dancer. Like such hallowed predecessors as Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, he’s as expressive with his twirls and jetes as he is with his face and voice, bringing balletic wonder to ordinary rituals of love and courtship.

Unfortunately, there are few shows around these days to provide a worthy showcase for the distinctive talents of Yazbeck, who received a Tony nomination as a pirouetting sailor (played by Kelly onscreen) in the delightful 2014 Broadway revival of “On the Town.”

Fans awaiting another glimpse of Yazbeck thinking — and feeling — on his feet should therefore be at least a little grateful for “The Beast in the Jungle,” the new dance play that opened Wednesday night at the Vineyard Theater off-Broadway. Fans of Henry James, on the other hand, should stay away.

Now how, you may ask, did we get from Gene Kelly to Henry James? Well, this production — which features an A-team of creative talent, starting with director-choreographer Susan Stroman (“Contact,” “The Producers”) and composer John Kander (“Cabaret,” “Chicago”) — is based on one of James' greatest long short stories (or, if you prefer, novellas).

Written when that master of subordinate clauses and psychological indirection was nearing 60, “The Beast in the Jungle” presents the strange and sorry case of one John Marcher, whose existence is cramped by his anticipation — both fearful and hopeful — of a great, life-defining event (the beast of the title) that seemingly never arrives.

As in much of James, the story's power is inescapably linked to its style — a close third-person that curls into itself in labyrinthine introspection. Though you could call James’ “Beast” a sort of love story manque, his protagonist would seem to be celibate (though a Jamesian gentleman never tells).

The John of this new adaptation — which features a script by David Thompson (“The Scottsboro Boys,” on which he collaborated with Kander and Stroman) — is in quest of what he calls “the great mystical [four-letter word for copulation].” So while James' “Beast” is about life-denying emotional paralysis, this latest version focuses on the more active perils of promiscuity and its tedious cousin: commitment phobia.

This means that Yazbeck, partnered with the exquisite prima ballerina Irina Dvorovenko, gets to move his hips a lot, which he does most gracefully. (Stroman has given them several fluid, not terribly imaginative erotic pas de deux.)

It also means that he is required to perform not one but two dances of assignation with various would-be lovers, with whom he banters in excruciating rhymed couplets. “Meet me behind the cloisters” is paired with “I’ll bring the oysters,” while “Meet me at the Gabinetto Segreto” gets “I won’t forget-oh.”

Those exchanges occur during the show’s first flashback, in Italy in the 1960s. The second round of them (which includes the immortal Q. and A., “Do you ride English saddle?” answered by, “I like to straddle”) occurs at an English country house in the ‘80s.

Framing such frolics down memory lane are the embittered recollections of the older, present-day John Marcher, fiercely played by Peter Friedman. He relates them to his dashing nephew (Yazbeck, who is then transformed into the nimble-footed John of yesteryear). As Friedman’s John says angrily, “I made sure I never had to face what I feared most: I was incapable of love.”

Since that declaration comes early in the show, John the elder is guilty of that most heinous of narrative crimes (boo, hiss!), the spoiler. Like James’ prototype, this guy is forever afraid of some beast of fate waiting to pounce on him. But darned if the bigmouth hasn’t already told us what that beast really is. (And you thought it might be venereal disease.)

Anyway, if only he would realize it, John really is in love with the enchanting May Bertram (Dvorovenko), whom he first meets in Naples, Italy, after some more witty banter that recalls aspiringly sophisticated sex comedies of 60 years ago. But as soon as they get too close, the Beast shows up, to come between them.

Here’s where I tell you that the Beast is a real character, sort of, given physical existence by Michael Curry, the show’s principal designer. Curry is best known for his puppetry for shows like “The Lion King” and “Frozen.” And he has here rendered the Beast as a series of gauzy but scary fairy-tale specters, manipulated by the show’s corps de ballet.

I was always happy to see the Beast, since it usually put a stop to the annoying dialogue and let Kander’s haunting, minor-key waltzes take over. Yazbeck’s dances of despair to these melodies are performed with as much elegance as being convincingly agonized allows.

Dvorovenko, a former principal dancer for the American Ballet Theater, is such a lovely and infinitely patient object of desire that it’s hard to feel much sympathy for John, who after all had already diagnosed his own problem. Besides, the view of our leading lovers is blocked by a mountain of name-brand cultural baggage and cumbersome back stories. May is obsessed with a study for Matisse’s fabled “The Dance,” which is brought to terpsichorean life by an all-female ensemble. (Her telegraphic description of that painting: “The joy of life! Dancing on the shore. Five snapshots of me. Naked!”)

John, meanwhile, becomes a high-powered art dealer, whose clients include a self-made British tycoon (Teagle F. Bougere, in “I say old chap” mode), who turns out to be married to May.

Oh, and John has been given a dark psychological back story that includes many unloved years in an orphanage that used to be an asylum. And a psyche-scarring act of violence.

Henry James may have been a famously verbose writer, but he also understood the virtues of restraint in storytelling. It is perhaps kinder not to imagine what his reaction might have been to this tell-everything adaptation.

“The Beast in the Jungle” runs through June 17 at Vineyard Theater, Manhattan; 212-353-0303, vineyardtheatre.org. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.