In 1903, Henry James wrote “The Beast in the Jungle,” and some critics believe this novella — provocative title and all — was James’ own response to his celibate and lifelong pursuit of his elaborately crafted fiction.
It’s hard to imagine how Henry James might respond to the changes of 100-plus years. In some ways, nothing has changed. Men and women still struggle to understand each other. And some guys are still certainly their own worst enemy in the love department.
James would surely be pleased to see the stately row houses still looking out over Washington Square Park, gaslights intact.
And I’d like to think he’d be thrilled to see what his novella inspired — a dance play. Crafted by Susan Stroman, John Kander (music) and David Thompson (book), “The Beast in the Jungle” is a deep celebration of romance, one which exploits the full arsenals of stagecraft to render the joys of love along with its incidental hallmarks, complete with the grim counterweight of love denied.
Set to Kander’s score of waltzes and to Stroman’s elegant choreography, Thompson’s book tells the tale of James’ hero, John Marcher, updated to the contemporary international art world.
We follow Marcher’s highs and lows, from both the lookback of aging regret, and the direct presence of a callow youth. The simple device of having two actors play one character is amplified by the elder Marcher advising his nephew on love, and that second actor playing the young Marcher. Tony Yazbeck tackles this demanding dance and character role with a fierce, convincing grace.
As his partner in a love affair tangled through misapprehension and doubt, Irina Dvorovenko also rises to the challenge of both dance and character, and creates a vivid portrait of lifelong desire, with both the highs and lows intact and indelible.
Both actors/dancers also explore the heartache and regrets that haunt them through time, and they are surrounded by a terrific team of colleagues who fill the Vineyard stage to help complete the mission.
Peter Friedman, as the senior Marcher, is our guide. His deliberate and rueful approach creates a clear portrait of a man confronting the mistakes of a lifetime.
His stark path is enlivened by the surprises of Michael Curry’s scenic and costume designs, a gossamer of psychic haunts and captivating whimsy.
These tantalizing embellishments often arrive in the hands of the hard-working dance chorus, six women who swoop through the action as living scenery, dancers and characters. Stroman uses them well, and the dancing throughout this affecting show is consistently superb.
And this play is very much about dance, enfolded into both the storytelling and the story. Matisse’s famed painting of a circle of dancers telescopes throughout the action, as a key plot element, and as a fit emblem of the pursuit of dreams, and the haunting memories of dreams deferred.