The Beast in the Jungle – A Compelling Dance Play

On the evening of a painful funeral, art dealer John Marcher (Peter Friedman) returns to his apartment exhausted and bereft only to be intruded upon by his nephew (Tony Yazbeck). The young man has broken up with a woman he loves but to whom he can’t commit. He needs a place to crash. Marcher instructs him in no uncertain terms to drop to one knee and propose before she’s lost. He speaks from experience.

Over a reluctant drink, Marcher relates the story of his youth, the great love he squandered, and his avowedly responsible demon (the Beast). As he begins, Friedman deftly shifts a white neck scarf from around his neck to that of Yazbeck who plays his uncle in the past. Director/ Choreographer Susan Stroman peppers the piece with subtleties like this.

Tony Yazbeck and the Company

Dance is a seamlessly interwoven part of the chronicle, sometimes replacing dialogue, at others illuminating it. We meet young Marcher in 1960s Naples “searching for the great mystical f_ _ _.” He’s handsome, arrogant and libidinous…juggling women in pursuit. (Invite and response is perhaps the weakest part of an otherwise appealing script.) From the moment Yazbeck sheds his glasses and takes to the floor, he exudes coltish charm and unabashed pleasure in both a life full of promise and command of his sinewy body. Facial expression is as captivating as graceful movement. (A Yazbeck signature.)

Marcher had been abandoned by his parents at an age sufficient to tramautize. He grew up in an institution sure of two things, that something “rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible, was sooner or later to happen” and that loving again would destroy him. When, a rarity, his heart would wholly respond, “the Beast” appeared physically sickening and emotionally panicking the boy. Designer Michael Curry’s manifestation of the specter is imaginative, forbidding, and aptly fluid as manipulated by the corps de ballet.

Peter Friedman and Tony Yazbeck

When lovely May Bertram (Irina Dvorovenko, former principal dancer of American Ballet Theater) floats by, Marcher is struck (as are we). He pursues, they flirt. This girl is smarter, more intuitive than the herd. The couple eventually spend a perfect afternoon together on a beach near Pompeii and make love. Chiffon-like waves, a seagull, girls (dancers) at play, and a cleverly realized swim enhance the encounter.

It’s truly Kismet, but the depth of the boy’s feeling conjures the Beast and Marcher flees without a word. He’s told May the truth, but she hadn’t realized its hold on him. (The Beast is defined and magnified by Peter Hylenski’s unnerving Sound Design.)

Irina Dvorovenko and Tony Yazbeck

Years later, a successful art dealer, Marcher is asked to visit a fabulously wealthy client (Teagle F. Bougere in a solid performance) in anticipation of millions of dollars worth of paintings arriving at his villa. One, a Matisse study, is meant to be an anniversary gift for his adored wife…who turns out to be May! (May and Marcher have a history with the artwork, a circle of naked, dancing women whose image acts as an evocative choreographic theme.)

The lovers can’t help themselves and are once again ablaze with passion. Erotic pas de deux act as counterpoint to droll scenes in which the two sneak fleeting romantic contact even in the presence of her husband. One splendid moment finds Marcher dreaming of May while in his bath. As she glides around the room, he deftly lifts her over the bubble filled tub, eyes still closed. Another occurs when current day Marcher steps in to narrate. Literally putting himself in the picture, he gazes into a mirror and sees young Marcher mimicking.

May and Marcher plan to run away together…and don’t. The star-crossed pair meet once more, not too long before the play begins. Now the fate that keeps them from living out their days together is actual. Still, the Beast hovers…waiting…

Left: Tony Yazbeck and Teagle F. Bougere; Right: Irina Dvorovenko and Tony Yazbeck

John Kander’s waltz-centric music is dark and dreamy, light and teasing, wrenched. It richly tells its own story aided and abetted by the symbiotic collaboration of Susan Stroman’s fetching choreography and sensitive direction and David Thompson’s contemporary script, almost completely original to him.

Henry James’ novella is dense, convoluted, and talky (even for this author). Sequence and circumstance are different here. Thompson adds appealing detail. He skillfully fleshes out scenes and peripheral characters. One caveat: the history of Marcher’s Beast makes interpretation clear enough not to be told what it represents.

Dvorovenko and Yazbeck are particularly pleasing dancers. Though professional backgrounds are different, chemistry and skill make them wonderful partners. Both are, as well, sympathetic actors. We’ve seen Yazbeck’s diverse talents any number of times of late (he also sings well), though none with opportunity for this much theatrical dance. Here, joy is as full blooded as palpable struggle and visible attack. Dvorovenko is a revelation. The player inhabits her role. Every speech is rooted and nuanced. Our hearts both respect and go out to May.

From the moment Peter Friedman distractedly walks into Marcher’s kitchen, we believe him. The actor wears isolation and regret like second skin. Conflict is perceptible. When Friedman steps into the light to address us, he vibrates with feeling.

Susan Stroman, it should be noted, returns here, amidst Broadway successes, with a fully realized dance play, 19 years after her groundbreaking Contact.

Dancers: Maira Barriga, Elizabeth Dugas, Leah Hoffman, Naomi Kakuk, Brittany Marcin Maschmeyer, Erin N. Moore

Photos by Carol Rosegg
Opening: Irina Dvorovenko and Tony Yazbeck

The Beast in the Jungle – A Dance Play
Inspired by the novella by Henry James
John Kander- Music
David Thompson- Book
Susan Stroman- Director/Choreographer
Vineyard Theatre  
108 East 15th Street
Through June 17, 2018

About Alix Cohen (812 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.