Bertie, Banjos and Bar Mitzvahs: By Jeeves! It’s British! It’s Bad!

I must begin this week by offering a sincere, abject apology to all the good folks at Mamma Mia! It takes a big man to admit a mistake, and I’m that sort of man.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote good-naturedly that the Swedish-Greek taverna show from London is “the worst show ever and proud of it.” But I was wrong. Mamma Mia! is the second-worst musical ever (and still proud of it).

Boy, when things go wrong . The worst musical ever is, without doubt, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s By Jeeves , which will be briefly at the Helen Hayes Theater on Broadway. My apologies again to Mamma Mia! , which now moves up into a well-deserved second place, and hearty congratulations to By Jeeves .

Those wild and crazy Swedes, ABBA, are Mozart compared to Mr. Lloyd Webber. But I wasn’t thinking that when I arrived at the Helen Hayes with hope in my heart, as always. I was thinking: “How nice. They’re serving tea.”

And chocky-bickies, too. The proud Englishman within me warmed to the sight of Union Jacks displayed in the foyer, where chocolate digestive biscuits were being offered as they poured welcoming English tea from a silver urn into-alas-paper cups. The paper cups weren’t a good sign. One does not linger over a paper cuppa. But the idea was there. They were trying . We would take tea with the Brits in the foyer and, thus fortified, would proceed to the Wodehousean delights within.

I should have known there would be trouble when I was shown to my seat by a P.G. Wodehouse character in white flannels who might have been Bingo Little, or Stiffy Byng, or Harold (Stinker) Pinker. “May I help you with your coat?” he asked with exaggerated cheerfulness in a Hooray-Henry upper-class English accent.

Oh, dear. Is there anything worse than participation theater, I can’t help but think, unless it’s the clown with the whistle who sits in your lap at the circus? It’s not that I don’t want to join in. It’s not that Harold (Stinker) Pinker, or Gussie Fink-Nottle, or Honoria Glossop can’t show me to my seat at By Jeeves and chat about the weather and the price of eggs, if that’s what they want to do. It’s just that it’s a little too soon to pretend. We haven’t sat down yet.

Then the Wodehouse chap, still in sunny character, handed me a program entitled “An Evening with Bertram Wooster.” “This will tell you all about it!” he announced, and went off to help others find their seats. It was sometime in the 1920′s, I learned, and we were attending a fund-raiser in a church hall in England for the church-steeple fund. Bertie himself-Bertram Wilberforce Wooster, tenor vocalist-was to entertain us on the banjo.

Isn’t that charming? It reminded me of a show I saw one time called Bernie’s Bar Mitzvah , although I don’t think Bernie’s Bar Mitzvah would have been P.G. Wodehouse’s paper cuppa. As I entered a theater space dressed up as a dining room, a friendly, middle-aged man came up to me and asked: “Are you one of the mishpochah?”

Well, it wasn’t for me to break the magic spell. So I said to the actor pretending to be the bar mitzvah boy’s uncle, “How did you know I was one of the mishpochah?” And he replied, “Because you look like Bernie.”

The imaginary setting of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s By Jeeves is merely Bernie’s Bar Mitzvah anglicized. I wonder if he knows. The tradition itself goes all the way back to Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding via dubious amateur charades in English stately homes. When the show actually begins, Harold (Stinker) Pinker, a muscular clergyman, is therefore thanking us-”his distinguished guests”-for coming along to support such a splendid, wonderfully worthwhile cause as the perilous state of our Little Wittam Church Steeple.

It was a little too soon to leave. Besides, Harold (Stinker) Pinker was encouraging rounds of faux jolly applause from us to thank Bernard (Bumpy) Bazely for the loan of the splendid hall, and Misses Apply-Witchurch and Hentleshaw “for their mouth-watering contribution to this evening’s early proceedings,” followed by several others who were greeted, I must say, with less and less enthusiasm as their names were announced.

Enter our hero Bertie, who sings a song entitled “Banjo Boy” as he strums for a while on a frying pan that he’s somehow mistaken for his banjo. Now, Bertie is a silly arse in a Wodehousean world of silly arses, and without Jeeves, his loyal, effortlessly superior butler, where would he be? But the banjo–fryingpan joke was a bummer. There’s just no way to confuse a frying pan with a banjo. You can’t fry an egg on a banjo. Well, I can’t. You can try.

The sight and sound of the British letting their hair down like this is never pretty. But Brit silliness-the perverse, dopey pleasure the English insist on taking in schoolboy humor and amateur nights out-has never felt more inbred. It takes brilliance to perform with deliberate badness. (See Noises Off .) When the banjo incident gave way to Bertie acting out the evening’s amateurishly farcical story of stupendous foolishness-because the banjo had been stolen -it didn’t look promising. But when the alleged comic adventures of clueless Bertie, Honoria, Gussie, Cyrus Budge III (Jr.) et al.-overseen by the ever-tactful “ahems” of that humorlesssuper-goy, Jeeves-turned out to be so incomprehensible that they would have defeated Einstein, the light of the exit door beckoned.

Andrew Lloyd Webber is many things, but never funny. Sir Alan Ayckbourn, the show’s director, bookwriter and lyricist, can be very funny. But not with Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber. The score, such as it is, is nondescript, with hints of Gilbert and Sullivan. By Jeeves itself has been knocking around for years. They won’t give up on it. I’m afraid it’s time.

The Good News

There’s just space to recommend at last Mary Zimmerman’s lovely, memorable achievement, Metamorphoses , at the Second Stage on West 43rd. Don’t feel inhibited for a second by the prospect of this retelling of Ovid. His classic, transforming tales are wonderful, and our theater needs great, mythic stories more than ever.

To be sure, Ms. Zimmerman can hover on the verge of the precious, but that’s the risk of such unearthly experiments. Naïveté in theater is always dangerous, innocence made too easily suspect. Ms. Zimmerman and her committed troupe are generous, gentle, lunatic souls. Only lunatics-or geniuses-would convert the stage into a 27-foot-wide pool of water where much of the action takes place! Yet you will see such aquatic delights as dreams are made of. Oceans swallow mighty warriors and give birth to erotic dreams; they drown illicit love and wash up dead kings in deaths foretold. Water is made of tears and the translucent power of love, and Phaëton, the son of the Sun, lazes on his back in a swimming pool, talking about father complexes to his poolside shrink.

Do see Metamorphoses , if you can. It’s the most unusual, innovative piece in New York, and it’s the best.