Bertha’s in the House! But Jane Eyre Fails to Ignite

One of my Christmas prezzies was the immensely enjoyable

video of Waiting for Guffman , which

sends up theater as This Is Spinal Tap

satirized rock ‘n’ roll. Christopher Guest (of Spinal Tap ) plays a campy choreographer, Corky St. Clair, who’s

hoping to get back to New York and into the big time of Broadway via an amateur

musical entitled Red, White and Blaine .

Performed by the stage-struck locals of Blaine, Corky’s show celebrates the

150th anniversary of the little town, and in the end everything goes

disastrously, touchingly wrong.

“Let us rest awhile by this campfire here,” the narrator of Red, White and Blaine says, staggering

on gamely as he continues with the

story. He rests awhile by the fire, which has been created sweetly with strips

of red cloth that are blown by a fan in front of a light. My goodness, I

thought, that’s exactly the same amateur effect they use for the fire in Jane Eyre !

With all of its multimillion-dollar Broadway technology and

sophisticated cyberspace effects, Jane

Eyre ‘s pivotal fire scene-lit by that Victorian madwoman in the attic,

Bertha the pyromaniac-is little more than the good old standby of many an

amateur production. They use silk ribbons blown by a fan, just like the folks

of Corky St. Clair’s Blaine. Small wonder the big moment goes for little or

nothing on a Broadway stage. It’s over in a flash, too-as if the distinguished

designer, John Napier, and the gifted co-director, John Caird (who also wrote

the book), couldn’t face it. One senses them clutching their heads in

rehearsal, moaning despairingly, “What do we do with the fire scene?” The movie version could easily solve the

problem with digital magic. What’s a poor stage version to do?

Better than this, I’m afraid. Mr. Caird and Mr. Napier last

worked together on Les Misérables ,

but there’s a tired, uninspired flatness to their work here-a failure of the

imagination that sinks Charlotte Brontë’s Gothic romance novel and

proto-feminist weepie into the drudgery of a dutiful uphill slog. “My story

begins, gentle audience, a long age ago,” Jane Eyre tells us coyly at the

start. And we have a long age to go, gentle reader, before her story ends

almost three hours later.

Jane Eyre the

musical is a somber piece, lit with deliberate, moody murkiness by Jules Fisher

and Peggy Eisenhauer. Lightness-a light touch-is rare. The “lovable”

housekeeper of Thornfield Hall, Mrs. Fairfax, is therefore as Dickensian as a

jolly cartoon, the pro forma period

party scene over-bright, under-witty. “Galloping up the drive / All the

beautiful people arrive / The cream of the crop / Clippity-clop.”

There’s quite a bit of

clippity-clopping going on. Broody, turbulent Rochester gallops onstage to the

sound of offstage clippity-clops. The dialogue is Victorian arch: “What the

deuce are you doing out here alone?” “There’ll be a storm tonight, I’ll wager!”

The music and lyrics by the relatively unknown Paul Gordon, whose previous

musical was the pop opera Greetings from

Venice Beach , is mostly characterless recitative or the familiar Sturm und Drang school of Andrew Lloyd

Webber. Tortured lovers wail about living in agonized turmoil without revealing

any. Mr. Caird wrote “additional lyrics,” which haven’t helped at all.

“Damn the passion. Damn the skies / Damn the light that’s in

her eyes,” cusses glowering Rochester, who’s played a little woodenly by James

Barbour, formerly Beast in Beauty and the

Beast . “The darkness that invades my soul / It sucks my blood / It takes

control / But I will not endure it any more!” Oh yes he will.

But we have a pious Jane, even a smug one. “When they bruise

you with words / When they make you feel small / When it’s hardest to bear /

You must do nothing at all.” This is a holier-than-thou, preachy Jane Eyre,

blessing everyone and everything in sight. When cruelly abused, she believes we

must do nothing at all because “forgiveness is the simplest vow.” A noble

thought, but the simplest ?

Simple-minded solutions

for the Broadway masses, nice and trite. “I can’t help but sense the darkness

in his mind / But I keep looking for his goodness / Afraid of what I’ll find.”

There she goes again! Goody-goody Jane’s unexciting, sensible heart moves

gingerly toward Rochester’s on quiet seas, as she prays a wave may come and

carry her “closer to his troubled tide.” His troubled tide is heaving for her.

And so it goes, including the rousing maritime metaphors. “Over mountains, over

oceans / How her restlessness stirs ….”

Marla Schaffel does well in the demanding role of Jane, I

thought, which will be fat consolation to one and all. It’s a quibble to point

out, perhaps, that her plummy English accent makes the Queen of England sound

common. This is meant to be Masterpiece

Theatre onstage. It craves our sleepy Anglophilia. And to that, I say,

“Clippity clop.”

The House of Wax

Jane Eyre left me

out of sorts, as you can tell. The Wax ,

Kathleen Tolan’s “existential farce,” which was inspired by her getting her

legs waxed, didn’t help, either. “A few years ago, the playwright Kathleen

Tolan decided she needed smoother legs,” The

Times informs us. “So I went to this wax person,” Ms. Tolan recalled

recently, “and I just found it hilarious to lie on this slab getting my hair

torn out by the roots-and paying for it!”

So now you know. Ms. Tolan, who appears to have been

previously living hairily in a cave, went on: “The woman who did it happened to

be Russian, and we had this amazing conversation about Chekhov and Tolstoy

while she was pulling. I thought, ‘I’ve got to put this in a play.'”

And I thought, to be honest, “Must you?” But that’s how The Wax at Playwrights Horizon was born.

And you never know . Because the waxing scene, in its unhinged nuttiness, was the

only one in this most unhappy comedy that began to approach the intended

giddiness of Ms. Tolan’s version of classic French farce.

The action takes place in the hotel room of a poet who’s frigidly

married to a foolish scientist (scientists are in ; I wish I could say the same for poets). They’re attending a

wedding and a number of other unfulfilled people turn up in the room, but I

wasn’t sure why. The dramatist is laborious on the subject of sexual identity,

and promiscuous with ill-digested ideas. There’s much rattling of door keys to

allow for much unnecessary hiding under beds, and far too much over-acting. No

one except for Frank Wood, blinking with deadpan bewilderment at what’s going on

around him, reveals any flair for farce. Ms. Tolan’s talky, confessional

characters, meant to be comic or wittily cultivated, are merely neurotic or

pretentious and sometimes nasty. Their identities get stripped away, I

guess-like, well, like hair on legs. The

Wax embarrassed me.