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Sets Appeal and Pulpit Fiction

Photo by Joan Markus
“It gets darker in Act 2.”

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 Sondheim–James 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 don’t have much against Act 1, which lays out Sondheim-Lapine’s 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 O’Malley — who has the show’s strongest voice). Although a Narrator (John McMartin) glides in and out of the scenes, the musical’s true north is Rapunzel’s witch mother (Vanessa Williams), who figures in much of the story’s 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 Ridinghood’s cape, a strand of Rapunzel’s 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 isn’t. 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 Jack’s slaying of the giant has brought down the wrath of the big man’s widow, whom we perceive as a looming shadow and thunderous sound effects (part and parcel of Brian MacDevitt’s gorgeous lighting plot and Dan Moses Schreier’s crisp sound design). The lady’s 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, we’re repeatedly cautioned, is to be careful about the wishes we make, but director Lapine’s book unfortunately steers the project into a lot of moralistic hand wringing instead of toward revelation. Rather than make the story’s 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 Sondheim’s lyrics tickle our spleens (“There’s no possible way/To describe what you feel/When you’re 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 it’s not Lloyd Webber, because of Douglas Schmidt’s 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 Weidman’s 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 Houston’s massive Rock Baptist Church and beholds its storied pulpit in the beginning of God’s Man in Texas, theatergoers might recall Brother Julian’s initial encounter with the scale model of the castle he is standing in at the start of Edward Albee’s Tiny Alice. If they do, it will be the first of many wrong audience guesses about the nature and direction of David Rambo’s play, now at the Geffen Playhouse.

Set in the rarefied world of Southern Baptist politics, Rambo’s 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. Gottschall’s 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 there’s Hugo Taney (Ian Barford), Dr. Gottschall’s 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 God’s man in Texas?

None of these possibilities pans out, suggesting a play that doesn’t 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. Rambo’s 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 Rock’s bowling alley and dinner theater keeps running long after it ceases being funny. What God’s 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 Geffen’s faux-stone walls into that stage’s identical faux faux-stone walls, and Daniel Ionazzi’s 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.