Sophisticated Cows, Elephant Men And Other Sentimental Darlings

Another day, another revival. Stephen Sondheim’s 1987 Into the Woods , a fairy tale for adults, sort of, has returned to Broadway and we are glad, sort of. Without doubt, the show has two or three of the loveliest-and best delivered-songs we could wish to hear. But there’s a but.

Mr. Sondheim has written edgier, more troubling scores. I’m thinking of his previous Follies and murderous Sweeney Todd . In this fairy-tale psychological journey into the woods with Bruno Bettelheim, we ought to feel much more disturbed than we are. Judging by the intended dark lessons and disenchantment of its second act, we’re meant to be troubled. But there’s little or no emotional connection, least of all to the manufactured naïveté.

You see, there I go again-heartlessly resisting the eternal charms of sweet Cinderella and naughty Little Red Riding Hood. Or as my daughter would say when she was but 3 years old, “I like Little Wed Widingwood, but I don’t like the Woof.” Happy days! (Happier, innocent days.) If, for having a number of serious doubts about the warmth and charmth of Mr. Sondheim’s Into the Woods , I shall be turned into stone and forced to watch a thousand productions of The Elephant Man until the latest revival of Man of La Mancha releases me, so be it.

There are worse fates. I could be trapped on the turntable of Les Misérables . My essential problem with Into the Woods and its rite of passage from childhood to wary adulthood is that it lacks an authentic innocence. It isn’t that there’s no fun. There’s a good deal of fun and laughter, particularly in the light first act. But innocence-or a true naïveté-is different.

For myself, there are few more painful things than the sound of an adult New York audience returning self-consciously to childhood. Those sighs, those sobs, those “aaaahs.” Take the show’s adorable cow, Milky-White. Never have I seen such a technologically accomplished cow onstage. It blinks, it smiles, it could probably deliver milk. It sure milks enough sentiment. And everything about the cow, which has obviously been designed to be utterly charming, left me cold.

This is the thing: Milky-White, who looks too skeletal, is close to an animatronic moo-cow. Played by the actor Chad Kimball, who’s suffocating inside making everything work, this marvel of technology is a cow on the wrong side of reality. It’s a special effect, like the familiar magic tricks in the show. You gotta have a gimmick, but a much truer innocence that would have taken us back to our lost childhood is the traditional pantomime cow. There’s been nothing to beat it in a thousand years. Two actors, one head. The panto cow is theatrically naïve magic; this sophisticated animatronic version isn’t.

You cannot connect emotionally to a knowing presentation of innocence. We want to, we might pretend to. But the camp ironies of James Lapine’s fairy-tale characters tend to wink at us, further removing us from the profound sincerity-and truth-of a Grimm fairy tale. Mr. Lapine, who also directs, hasn’t been able to resist making a few coarse jokes for the boys. He can be wittier. (“I was raised to be charming-not sincere,” explains the charming prince.) But the dramatist’s quest for self-knowledge in the woods keeps a slender hold on his crowded plot. He’s quite cleverly woven together the stories of Cinderella, giant-slaying Jack and Little Red Riding Hood. (Why, incidentally, is Cinderella off to the festival ? Cinders goes to the ball, no?) But Mr. Lapine’s forest is overpopulated. The party becomes a pile-up with yet more stories-from the Wicked Witch, Rapunzel and two princes, to the childless baker and his wife-with Granny, a lost father, our old friend Milky-White and others standing on line to give us our moral instruction.

Children get the message of fairy tales without being told what to think, but the adult audience on Broadway needs guidance, apparently. There’s a moral there, but let’s not go into it now. Mr. Sondheim-being Sondheim-has conceived a second act of death, loss and failure, which ends in faux harmony while meekly spelling everything out for us. One of his lessons seems to be you’re free if your mother’s dead. (What about your dad?) The sainted Sondheim whacks us one too many times over the head with his well-thumbed rhyming dictionary. (Hence the Forbidden Broadway satire of the show, entitled Into the Words ). But he’s rarely been wittier than his wolf’s “There’s no way to describe / What you feel / When you’re talking to your meal.” The comic duet of the philandering princes of narcissism, “Agony,” has always been a riot. “The Two of Us” resonates more emotionally for me than the popular sentimental closer, “No One is Alone.” Being alone is the truer sentiment of our premier composer. It’s the more clear-eyed, typical, cynical, Sondheimian thing.

As a whole, the big ensemble could scarcely be better-the sweet pratfall princess of Laura Benanti’s Cinderella, Gregg Edelman’s preening prince, and a wonderful comic performance by Kerry O’Malley as the Baker’s Wife, among several first-rate contributions. I preferred the horrible Wicked Witch of Vanessa Williams in Act I to the transformed Beautiful Witch of Vanessa Williams in Act II, but I’m not sure why.

Alas, Poor Merrick

Another revival I caught recently, among the 3,000 other revivals, was Bernard Pomerance’s 1979 The Elephant Man at the Royale. I haven’t seen the famous biodrama before, and now I know why. I’ve no taste for little morality plays-or a muddy stream of exploitative Hollywood movies-patronizing the physiologically deformed, the retarded or any tragically damaged people. The Elephant Man belongs to the peep-show era of Broadway’s middle-brow conscience plays: Whose Life Is It, Anyway? (the paralyzed), The Shadow Box (the terminally ill) or Children of a Lesser God (the deaf). It’s all nice and safe entertainment, folks! A few tears, a few laughs, plus it’s good for the soul. Roll up! Roll up!

Mr. Pomerance wants us to see John Merrick as the exploited freak show of a hypocritical Victorian society. Alas, poor Merrick: He’s now become our very own freak show, our smug channel to unearned sentiment, our deformed darling. The Elephant Man is an old boulevard potboiler with Brechtian window-dressing to make it look superior. It tries to turn Merrick into a kind of sweet wise man with lines like “I think my head is so full because it is full of dreams.” But such manipulative goo only reminds us of the saccharine wisdom of Forrest Gump and his famous pseudo-philosophy, “Life is like a box of chocolates.”

Billy Crudup makes a fine and honest Merrick; Kate Burton, an actressy actress, plays an actressy actress; Rupert Graves, an actor to watch, makes a dignified Frederick Treves. It’s a solid production, then. (With original music by Philip Glass dressing up the window-dressing.) But how many times-I ask you-can we see a set collapse?

British directors love wrecking their sets. They can’t help it. I wish they would, but they can’t. Comes the big moment at the end of any of their productions-ta-da! The set falls down. It’s the director’s heavily symbolic moment, a personal touch signaling the death of civilization perhaps, an epiphany, or simply the end. Sean Mathias, the British director of The Elephant Man , wanted to add a little something to the death of Merrick. So his set falls down. The intended coup de théâtre actually neutralizes the impact of the death scene, because we just saw the set collapse more dramatically at the end of Richard Eyre’s The Crucible . Before that, Jonathan Kent’s Medea notoriously collapsed the set on what was previously thought to be the innocuous line “Unbar the doors.” And before that came the granddaddy of them all-the mother lode itself-when the set collapsed at the glorious, lunatic close of Stephen Daldry’s An Inspector Calls .

Time to stop.

Sophisticated Cows, Elephant Men And Other Sentimental Darlings