Curiouser and Curiouser! Ruhl Wrecks Eurydice With Whimsy

It was the mighty Kenneth Tynan who said that among the things he could live without in the theater are Everyman characters with pretentious names like “Mr. Adam” or “Mr. Zero.”

I wonder how he might have felt about Sarah Ruhl’s interpretation of the Orpheus/Eurydice myth with its “The Nasty and Interesting Man,” and its Greek chorus of human stones named “Loud Stone,” “Big Stone” and “Little Stone.”

Methinks I see the rakish Tynan making a dash for the exit the moment he finishes reading his playbill. When it comes to anthropomorphic fantasies (not to mention a “Nasty and Interesting Man”), I confess I’m of like mind, though Ms. Ruhl’s Eurydice has already received critical acclaim as a poetic masterpiece.

Tynan also maintained that he could live without all plays in which circus tents symbolize the human condition, and Ms. Ruhl’s drama offers us today’s avant-garde equivalent—a symbolic bathhouse (as in the watery productions of Mary Zimmerman), with sound effects and exposed pipes (as in David Leveaux’s Electra), together with pseudo-Beckettian characters imprisoned in a wasteland, or hell (as in artsy-fartsy shows too numerous to mention).

Ms. Ruhl also throws into her Eurydice mix a pastiche of Lewis Carroll, a fairy-tale intrusion of the Big Bad Wolf (her junior Lord of the Underworld), outtakes from The Wizard of Oz and more than an echo of Caryl Churchill’s magic realism and Edward Albee’s absurdism.

That’s an awful lot of dramaturgy for one Greek myth. Ms. Ruhl’s previous New York outing was with the award-winning The Clean House, an anemic social comedy with serious undertones about love, passion, cancer, housecleaning and Matilde, a wise Brazilian maid who’s in search of the perfect joke—“The perfect joke,” she muses, “is somewhere between an angel and a fart.”

You could have fooled me. But this is the way Ms. Ruhl thinks.

In re-imagining what is one of the greatest love stories, she’s keeping company with Titian, Monteverdi, Balanchine and Cocteau. And Updike, too. The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice touches all hearts. When Eurydice suddenly dies, the heavenly music of her bereft lover moves even stones to tears as Orpheus woos the gods to return her to him. They’re both given a second chance. But Orpheus is warned not to look back at Eurydice as she follows him out of Hades and back to life. He looks back and loses her forever.

This is surprising and disappointing news to relate: I’m afraid that not even for an instant does Ms. Ruhl convey a sense of the eternal, aching love of the myth. Sad to say, she reduces everything—including anguish—to whimsy.

A harsh verdict was inevitable from the outset, when her two charmlessly coy protagonists (Joseph Parks’ Orpheus and Maria Dizzia’s Eurydice) first appear, romping in 1950’s swimming costumes. Why the 50’s? Well, why not? Weren’t those innocent times (sort of)? At the lovers’ wedding, they sing the Andrews Sisters’ song with the lyric “Don’t sit under the apple tree / with anyone else but me.” It’s meant to be fun and quirky, though neither cute quirkiness nor straining jokes are the point of the original story.

The atmosphere of Ms. Ruhl’s vulgarized version is relentlessly “off-beat”—just as the set designed by Scott Bradley is deliberately off-kilter. The two lovers reveal surprisingly trivializing differences for tragic heroes: Eurydice adores books, but Orpheus doesn’t see the point of them. He lives for music; she can’t carry a tune, and so on. Worse: The two actors playing them have been encouraged by the playwright or the director, Les Waters, to act like children.

Curiouser and Curiouser! Ruhl Wrecks Eurydice With Whimsy