Sets Appeal and Pulpit Fiction
|Photo by Joan Markus|
You hear this comment a lot outside the Ahmanson Theater during the intermission of the revived and Broadway-bound but overpraised Into the Woods. The encouragement seems offered as a kind of apology for Act 1 the lighter half of the Stephen SondheimJames Lapine musical mostly modeled on Grimms fairy tales. As though we had to get through a fluffy patch of obvious jokes and character flow charts in order to arrive at the adult part of the evening, the part that will reveal deeper, even painful lessons to audiences. The darker stuff.
I really dont have much against Act 1, which lays out Sondheim-Lapines narrative conceit with wit and clarity. In some enchanted neighborhood at the edge of the woods lives a slew of familiar fairy-tale characters: Little Red Ridinghood (Molly Ephraim), Rapunzel (Melissa Dye), Jack (Adam Wylie) and his beanstalk, Cinderella (Laura Benanti), and the Baker and His Wife (Stephen DeRosa and Kerry OMalley who has the shows strongest voice). Although a Narrator (John McMartin) glides in and out of the scenes, the musicals true north is Rapunzels witch mother (Vanessa Williams), who figures in much of the storys mischief and who sets the main action in motion.
Into the Woods may play down the onset of Bettelheimian puberty themes and run uncomfortably long, but it also unleashes a clever plot involving the childless bakers scavenger hunt for certain items belonging to their famous neighbors (Red Ridinghoods cape, a strand of Rapunzels hair, etc.) a quest the couple hope will end their barrenness. So the bakers enter the woods, a primeval place full of trees and metaphors, where all of the fairy-tale characters well-known stories are re-enacted. By intermission, they are about to live happily ever after, and the play seems over.
It isnt. Instead, our characters are faced, as in some noir fable, with the unforeseen and terrible consequences of their well-meaning adventures. Central is the fact that Jacks slaying of the giant has brought down the wrath of the big mans widow, whom we perceive as a looming shadow and thunderous sound effects (part and parcel of Brian MacDevitts gorgeous lighting plot and Dan Moses Schreiers crisp sound design). The ladys set to crush our characters unless they surrender Jack, who did, after all, repay the giants hospitality with theft and murder.
The journey of our striving characters represents a reverse expulsion from the Garden here the bakers, Little Red Ridinghood and Jack are sent into a sinister Eden in order to fulfill certain tasks, improve their lot and pick up some wisdom along the way. They accomplish these things, but they also screw up and throw their sylvan environment out of balance. The lesson, were repeatedly cautioned, is to be careful about the wishes we make, but director Lapines book unfortunately steers the project into a lot of moralistic hand wringing instead of toward revelation. Rather than make the storys more villainous figures (the wolf, the witch and the giantess) more sympathetic, Lapine decided to make its heroes less so. Into the Woods is an artifact of its times, the late 1980s, when irony became king and the cult of the child had just become entrenched in American pop culture and advertising. The result here is a show that exhibits a certain mean streak toward its characters while blathering on about kids.
Some of Sondheims lyrics tickle our spleens (Theres no possible way/To describe what you feel/When youre talking to your meal), even if his melodies permit only a few of the tunes (Into the Woods, Last Midnight, No One Is Alone) to stick with us very long. We want to cheer the show because its not Lloyd Webber, because of Douglas Schmidts breathtaking scenic design (we will not soon forget those giant, gnarled trees, their low canopy of leaves and the towering bound editions of fairy tales that sometimes become part of the stage architecture) and because it dares to be darker. But darker than what? Certainly not those ancient German fables, with their blend of pagan fatalism and Christian sentimentality, nor, say, a work like Sondheim and John Weidmans Assassins.
We start out the evening looking for that last midnight of the soul and end up with the Child of Light instead.
When smalltime minister Jeremiah Mears visits Houstons massive Rock Baptist Church and beholds its storied pulpit in the beginning of Gods Man in Texas, theatergoers might recall Brother Julians initial encounter with the scale model of the castle he is standing in at the start of Edward Albees Tiny Alice. If they do, it will be the first of many wrong audience guesses about the nature and direction of David Rambos play, now at the Geffen Playhouse.
Set in the rarefied world of Southern Baptist politics, Rambos story looks at the sometimes shaky accession of Dr. Mears (Francis Guinan) to that pulpit which happens to be still occupied by a venerable but elderly minister, Dr. Philip Gottschall (George Coe). Dr. Gottschall seems to be of two minds about Dr. Mears he tilts toward his candidacy, which is being debated by a church board, and allows him to effectively audition for the job by inviting him to preach at the Rock, which boasts televised sermons and a college campus; yet he often scolds the younger Baptist over his preaching style. We spend much of Act 1 wondering if Mears will get the position, or if Gottschall will ever relinquish it. By the end of Act 2, we simply want to know when the play will end.
The problem is that Rambo, intentionally or not, lays out several false scents. We learn that Mears itinerant preacher father vanished into thin air years ago will he re-appear? The younger Mears seems a little too willing to dumb down his scholastic appreciation of the Bible to win Dr. Gottschalls position from an old Baylor University rival will he become power-mad? Dr. Gottschall himself begins to act a little paranoid and cantankerous will he become simply mad? Then theres Hugo Taney (Ian Barford), Dr. Gottschalls Gomer-Pyle-in-recovery TV technician and aide, who just happened to have been saved from perdition years back by none other than Mears father will Hugo accidentally mike a damning confession from one of the men? Will he somehow become Gods man in Texas?
None of these possibilities pans out, suggesting a play that doesnt know what it wants to be, much less how to get there; not helping matters is the getting-there itself, composed of a deadening number of blackouts that shift action between the pulpit and a meeting room. Rambos themes (the corporate and entertainment nature of religion) are clearly drawn, but he never takes them anywhere beyond the most obvious statements a gag reference to the Rocks bowling alley and dinner theater keeps running long after it ceases being funny. What Gods Man in Texas needs is what all successful religions have at their core a little mystery.
Director Randall Arney gets his actors to hit all the right notes but never breaks them out of the two confining locales onstage. Loy Arcenas has some fun extending the Geffens faux-stone walls into that stages identical faux faux-stone walls, and Daniel Ionazzis lighting plot cues the men into the appropriate moments of soul-searching. The cast does as much as it can with the material. Guinan turns in a suitably low-key performance as Dr. Mears, a decent and honorable man caught in the middle of an unseemly struggle. Coe, while playing Dr. Gottschall a little too over-the-top at times, is a reliable source of fun in a show whose humor is not intended to be subtle. As the deceptively goofy Hugo, actor Barford almost steals the show, projecting just the right blend of vulnerability and a suggestion of the mystery that, like many other things in this play, is missing from the script.