A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to The Frogs

It’s no pleasure to report that the new production of The Frogs , starring Nathan Lane, illustrates why vaudeville died. I’d much rather be telling you about a great night out-a wonderfully silly night out-at the theater on a glorious summer’s night. But as Mr. Lane’s Dionysos puts it despairingly during the show: “Have you been to the theater lately?”

Hopes were certainly high going in. The Frogs , which opened at the Vivian Beaumont Theater as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, was, of course, originally written by laugh-a-minute Aristophanes in 405 B.C. Then again, the music and lyrics are by Stephen Sondheim; the Aristophanes version was freely adapted by Burt Shevelove (who wrote the 1962 A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with Mr. Sondheim); it has been even more freely adapted by the one and only Mr. Lane; and the director and choreographer is Susan Stroman, of The Producers .

The show famously had a brief life as a mad aquatic frolic when it was staged in Yale University’s swimming pool 30 years ago. From the sound-and the legend-of it, that was fun! But I’m afraid the new version at Lincoln Center is a bloated, two-and-a-half-hour disaster that wouldn’t even make it in Las Vegas. What on earth are they all doing?

Don’t shoot the pianist. The late Mr. Aristophanes isn’t to blame. For all Ms. Stroman’s success, she can be frantically coarse. Her flashy choreography here, such as it is, is about as subtle as pole dancing. But her directorial grip on the production is extraordinarily loose; its inner pulse is off; her repetitive, leisurely use of the revolve slows down the action, at times to a crawl. Worse, her aerial “ballet” is a lame, unimaginative borrowing from Cirque du Soleil (with Vegas high-camp costumes by William Ivey Long). The spread-eagled crotch shots for the boys aren’t too subtle. The chorus does its best to pose as Greek statues, I guess. What can I say? You really had to be there for Ms. Stroman’s bungee-jumping frogs.

Two bungee-jumping frogs. There are only two bungees. (Lincoln Center is a nonprofit theater, or so they say). Nathan Lane did his own bungee jump at one perilous point. He sort of hung up there horizontally for a while. Then he got it going. I hope he was having fun. He looked a little pale, actually. But if you sense desperation in all this, you’d be right.

The Frogs is loosely about Mr. Lane’s god of drama and wine, who ventures to Hades with his slave Xanthias (Roger Bart, god of making something out of nothing). Dionysos wants to bring a great playwright back to war-torn earth to inspire us all to save the world. If he could just save this show it would be a start.

In the original Aristophanes, the choice hinged on a debate between Aeschylus and Euripides. In the Shevelove-Lane version, it’s between Shakespeare and Shaw-a brave, if tedious, choice for a musical comedy. They’d have been better off with Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, or Ethel Merman and Mary Martin. “Anyway,” as another unfortunate line goes in the show, “to make a long story even more interminable,” The Frogs ends with a literary contest between the greatest hits of Shakespeare (played by Michael Siberry, looking seriously Elizabethan) and the not-so-greatest hits of Shaw (Daniel Davis, looking seriously Shavian).

Meanwhile, on the road to Hades, Dionysos meets Herakles, who seems to be costumed in a low-cut bikini. Herakles looks and sings exactly like Gaston in Beauty and the Beast , but only because he’s played by strapping Burke Moses, who was Gaston in Beauty and the Beast . Pluto is as camp as a row of tents, but Peter Bartlett makes me laugh. The show also has about three million jokes about hell during the crossing of the Styx with a quickfire Charon. “There’ll be hell to play!” … “Hell, no!” … “I’ll see you in hell first!” … “When hell freezes over!” … and so on. Mr. Sondheim’s lyrics shine here, at least:

This is it!

Club Dead

Straight ahead

Bring your shroud

No coffins allowed

There’s too big a crowd …

and his great punch line: “Get your kicks / On the River Styx …. “

But the wittiest line in The Frogs opens the show, and it still belongs to Mr. Shevelove: “The time is the present. The place is Ancient Greece.” Unfortunately, it’s more or less downhill all the way from there. There are lengthy stretches in this new “topical” version when we could be watching the Letterman show on an off night. Playing to the gallery, Mr. Lane’s frogs are now meant to represent the kind of conformist dopes who vote for George Bush. But the predictable, safe political jokes craving easy, smug laughter are enough to turn a loyal Democrat into a rabid Republican.

The fine line between good corn and bad corn is more mysterious. Good corn: Forum ; bad corn: its hybrid distant relative, The Frogs . Understatement has never been Nathan Lane’s game. (Nor was it Zero Mostel’s.) But as a comedy writer making his Broadway debut, he’s either giving us stand-up shtick with Viagra jokes in muddled memory of honest burlesque, or his act is surprisingly dated (Hillary Clinton “It takes a village” jokes, even “You talkin’ to me?” jokes).

The star is at his best when he isn’t taking himself seriously, when he’s hapless. In that sense, Mr. Lane’s romantic wanderlust for the fair Ariadne isn’t a good idea. (He’s the comic, not the prince.) Nor is he a natural interpreter of Mr. Sondheim, though he isn’t helped by the composer’s wistful ballad of yearning for him, “Ariadne,” which amounts to an overwrought shrug. (“There are no stars in hell / Just as well …. “)

Mr. Lane is appearing in bad burlesque in The Frogs , and Ms. Stroman is out to lunch in Las Vegas-but where exactly is Mr. Sondheim? On the one hand, he’s in his own distant past: the vaudevillian jauntiness of the opening Invocation from the original Shevelove version (similar in spirit to Mr. Sondheim’s far superior, just perfect “Comedy Tonight,” which opens Forum ). And he’s also imitating his past: the vamping “Dress Big” (which isn’t top-drawer Sondheim, either): “Gotta dress massive / Not passive / Very imprassive [ sic ] …. ” “It’s the rig / You dig … ?”

You dig ? I haven’t heard that since I didn’t inhale in the 60′s. The brooding ironies of Mr. Sondheim’s now more typically dark work infuse the show in the new songs. The trouble is, they belong in a different show. Call it Assassins II . Ms. Stroman stages his world-weary “It’s Only a Play,” for example, with funereal choral pomp, lest we miss its point:

Well, words are only chatter

And easy to say.

It doesn’t really matter

It’s only a play.

Wait a minute! Isn’t Frogs supposed to be about a playwright-a play -saving the day? It is. Hence Mr. Sondheim’s sudden about-face in his “Final Instructions to the Audience”: “Don’t shovel what’s uncomfortable / Underneath the rug / Speak up! Get sore! / Do something more than just deplore.”

And to that I raise my glass and say, “Here’s to the ladies who bungee-jump.” Or, as Nathan Lane’s Dionysos puts it as he bids us farewell in rhyme before nursery school gets out at around 10:30 p.m.:

I’ve taken a chance, I’ve brought

back a poet.

Let’s take charge of the world

before it’s gone as we know it.

The Elephant in The Room

An afterword about Simon McBurney’s The Elephant Vanishes , the major avant-garde theater event of the Summer Festival: Inspired by the stories of Haruki Murakami and working with a Japanese ensemble, the acclaimed British director has turned to multimedia tricks (video projections and film, hand-held cameras, multiple images, live and recorded action, sliding TV screens, blinding light) to express a nightmare urban chaos. But he’s become its victim.

Mr. McBurney’s earlier, most humane work enchanted me, yet the outcome here is familiar to anyone in touch with the avant-garde scene. One of his recurring images, for example, is of a man floating and turning hypnotically in space. Even more beguilingly, the floating man seems to dive at one miraculous point into a video film of an ocean. But that same thrilling image was created in 1991 by Robert LePage in his hallucinatory, surreal masterpiece, Needles and Opium .

On the other hand, it could be that the brilliant Mr. LePage in turn “borrowed” the image from the leading multimedia troupe in the world, Lanterna Magica from Italy, who have created virtually every stage miracle known to man-including the apparition of someone walking through a video screen.

Great artists always borrow from great artists. (Lesser artists steal from lesser artists.) The more important point is that these stage miracles are only tricks. In the end, they dwarf and upstage the actor-the real, live actor.

Take the central image of The Elephant Vanishes . The story itself is fascinating: An elephant has vanished from a zoo, but no one knows how he did it. A kitchen-appliance salesman-a peddler of mundane dreams-becomes obsessed with how it happened. Mr. McBurney shows us, among much else that crowds the story, an image of an elephant’s eye traveling across the stage on a TV screen, and a big backdrop of an elephant in close-up on film. The image itself isn’t arresting, but passive and mundane. It’s just an elephant (or an elephant’s eye).

There was a video installation last year at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea entitled Play Dead; Real Time , which showed a video loop of an elephant struggling to get up over and over again. It became something extraordinary , unearthly, primal and trapped-the nightmare awesomeness that should have been in The Elephant Vanishes .

But when Mr. McBurney tried to convey a real elephant onstage, I’m afraid he faltered there, too. The film backdrop dwarfed and swamped the actors onstage. They tried to create an elephant with the help of a few chairs (chairs are usually an imaginative specialty of the director). But even the actors’ elephant was no elephant at all!

Now, at the start of Peter Brook’s epic The Mahabharata , it so happens his troupe came on pretending to be an elephant, and years later I can remember the sound of it, the dust bowl it created, and its lumbering, monstrous size. It goes to the heart of the matter, which is real theater magic-not tricks, but a troupe of actors who gather in space with nothing up their sleeves save imagination.