Croak Classic

Peter Bartlett and Nathan Lane in The Frogs.Photo: Paul Kolnik

The epithet froggy has several meanings: frisky, pugnacious, hoarse, or French. Only the first two apply to The Frogs, the musical which, based on the comedy by Aristophanes (405 B.C.), became a nonmusical farce by Burt Shevelove (A.D. 1941), a mini-musical by Shevelove and Stephen Sondheim (A.D. 1974), was performed at Yale’s Olympic-size swimming pool, and now has emerged as a full-fledged Nathan Lane–Shevelove–Sondheim musical, not even a tad tadpolish.

Classicists tend to rave about the humor of Aristophanes, which, in large measure, escapes me. One obvious problem with the original play is that it splits into two rather discrepant halves. In the first act, Athens, threatened by Sparta, needs a dramatic poet to rouse her citizens from lethargy. The god of wine and drama, Dionysos (Nathan Lane), and his slave, Xanthias (Roger Bart), set out for Hades to bring back the dramatist most suited to spur the Athenians to their martial duties. Much comedy hinges on who gets to wear the awesome gear of the hero Herakles, who has dragged the hellhound Cerberus up from the netherworld: Should it go to the cowardly god or his scrappily resourceful servant?

The second half is taken up by the literary contest between the robust but somewhat archaic Aeschylus and the more modern but slightly too glib Euripides for the guerdon of resuming life and reluming Athenian patriotic fervor. This rhetorical duel is adjudicated by a now much more godlike Dionysos, but for contemporary audiences it’s a meaningless battle—no more significant than the pseudo-Homeric mock epic The Battle of the Frogs and Mice. Lane initially thought of further updating Shevelove’s contestants, Shakespeare and Shaw, but eventually found it less froggy-versus-mousy to stick with the near-mythic Bard and the barbed Bernard.

Lane’s other problem is the frogs themselves. Greek drama, like modern musical comedy, needs a chorus, and the croaking, often underwater frogs seemed the right choristers among the croaked underworldlings. Aristophanes, however, couldn’t do anything very dramatic with them. So how do you buttress batrachians? Here they are made menacing defenders of the status quo, and Susan Stroman, who directed and choreographed, gives them a rowdy ballet with bouncing and leapfrogging, bungee cords embroiling even Dionysos (later on, the three Graces descending acrobatically from silken cords), and a comic-nasty climax. Unfortunately, this is the show’s high point, the finale of an amusing first act swiftly followed by an anticlimactic second.

Among the cast, a swaggering Herakles (Burke Moses) and an aged-hippie, pot-smoking Boatman Charon (John Byner) contribute amiable levity to the first act, as does, in the second, Peter Bartlett’s grandly effete Pluto. Topical jokes (many anti-Bush, and some rather hoary) proliferate, flames spout from balustrades and chorines’ hats, as Las Vegas meets Cirque du Soleil, and hodge melds with podge.

Prodigal scenery by Giles Cadle and lavishly impudent costumes by William Ivey Long are condignly lighted by Kenneth Posner; Lane and Bart, inspired comedians, make the good jokes resonate and the poorer ones bearable. But where The Frogs bogs down fatally is in the Shaw-Shakespeare agon, cobbled together from uneven quotations from their plays, and well delivered by Daniel Davis (Shaw) and less well by Michael Siberry (Shakespeare). There are long stretches with no music to the rescue; though augmented, the Sondheim score is still a bit chary, and his early Funny Thing manner rubs uneasy shoulders with his darker and more complex later mode. Except for a couple of winners, this is middle-drawer Sondheim, yet which of his competitors wouldn’t love to have the key to it?

When it premiered, interest in Arthur Miller’s quasi-autobiographical After the Fall (1964) focused on Quentin/Arthur’s troubled relationship with his second wife, Maggie, modeled on Marilyn Monroe. This was still true of the 1984 revival; but in 2004 (the play pops up every twenty years), Miller and director Michael Mayer direct equal attention to the protagonist’s parents, the first wife (here called Louise), the Holocaust, and the McCarthy witch hunt with the havoc it wrought.There are various revisions here, mostly by Mayer, and all to the good. Notably the elimination of the unnecessary character Felice, pruning of some heavy symbolism and pseudo-poetry, and reordering of certain scenes. Compared with the rampant flaws of sundry other characters, Quentin’s are either minuscule or downright self-aggrandizing (professing a share of guilt in the Holocaust); the production also emphasizes the nobility under the Nazis of Miller’s third wife, Inge (the German Holga). In 1964, I referred to “a classic case of what Wilde called washing one’s clean linen in public.”

“Topical jokes proliferate, flames spout from balustrades, and hodge melds with podge.”

The nagging, rancorous Louise is played by Jessica Hecht with her usual lack of minimal appeal; Carla Gugino, as Maggie, has some terrific sick moments, but not quite Monroe’s allure; Vivienne Benesch gets at least the right accent for Holga; and Candy Buckley is believably exasperating as Quentin’s meddling mother. Support from the rest is competent, but the personable Peter Krause, though good apart from some excess gesticulation, is much too young and lightweight for the middle-aged Quentin. The action, tautologically situated “in the mind, thought, and memory of Quentin,” is usually played on several platforms. Richard Hoover’s set is an impressive replica of Kennedy airport, which works in some scenes and jars in others. Mayer’s staging is on the button. The story holds our attention, but Miller’s curdled grandiloquence is another matter; Holga’s “I think one must finally take one’s life in one’s arms” is only the most modest example.

Steven Dietz’s Fiction features relentlessly smart-ass badinage, conspiratorial addresses to the audience, overlapping dialogue, superimposed locations, artful leaps in time, prestigious name-dropping, and an ending that is really the beginning—the whole bag of recycled tricks. It proves that cleverness alone won’t do it, any more than haute couture on an unsightly wearer.Michael and Linda, who met in a Paris café, are long-married novelists, she soon to die of a theatrically modish incurable disease. Years previously, at a writers’ colony, Michael had a brief fling with young Abby, one of the staff, whom Linda, his predecessor at that colony, had befriended. Linda wants Michael to read her copious diaries after she’s gone, and she requests to read his copious ones now. From Michael’s diaries, there emerges a lifelong yearning for Abby; from Linda’s, that her first and most successful novel was cribbed from Abby’s confidences. Credibility is doggedly stretched, and ends in an apotheosis of cutesiness.David Warren has directed preciously in James Youmans’s semi-abstract décor. Tom Irwin’s actorish Michael is twitchily mannered, italicizing every other line; Julie White, even overdirected, is a humorously and heartbreakingly adorable Linda; poor Emily Bergl (Abby), meant to be “achingly vibrant … a lethal combination of beauty, danger, youth, and wit,” manages only two out of four.

Tel Aviv’s Gesher Theatre consists mostly of Russian immigrant actors who perform in Hebrew and Russian. For the Lincoln Center Festival, it brought two adaptations of Isaac Bashevis Singer fictions, one of which was a genuine revelation. Shosha, a modern story with many characters and locations, proved too diffuse and episodic, and came across as a comic-strip version of a novel. The Slave, however, worked beautifully.Jacob, a seventeenth-century yeshiva graduate, loses his wife and children in a Cossack raid and is sold into slavery. His master’s daughter, Wanda, falls in love with him, seduces him, and, after converting to Judaism, marries him. They escape from the persecution of Polish villagers and start a loving life in a small Jewish settlement, where she calls herself Sarah and pretends to be a deaf-mute to avoid recognition as a Gentile. Jacob and Sarah undergo many tribulations. Eventually she bears a son, then sickens and dies. Jacob and the boy go off to the Holy Land, whence he returns twenty years later to claim Sarah’s bones, but dies and is buried in her grave.Yevgeny Arye, the co-adapter and co-designer, directed simply and swiftly in minimal décor put to maximal use. All the performances work, with Israel Demidov and especially the wonderful Yevgenya Dodina shining in the leads.

Croak Classic