NEW YORK, NY.-
Did you ever want to see a fairy-tale mashup, set amid the magic of nature, offering clever rhyme and delightful song, with a powerful theme to bring it all home?
Well, this isnt that.
Fairycakes, the laborious new comedy by Douglas Carter Beane that opened Sunday at the Greenwich House Theater, dares to enter the precincts of Into the Woods, upping the ante and losing the bet. Written mostly in ear-scraping doggerel, it throws characters from the fairy-world subplot of Shakespeares A Midsummer Nights Dream into the mixer with Cinderella, Peter Pan, Pinocchio and Sleeping Beauty, then presses the button marked beat to death.
I say this with no glee; I went in needing and fully expecting an old-fashioned good time from the author of The Little Dog Laughed, As Bees in Honey Drown and many other hilarities. Beanes always palpable love of theater, and satirical eye for its self-dramatizing denizens, suggested a lighthearted romp in the metaphysical woods.
And for a moment, when familiar cutups like Jackie Hoffman and Ann Harada started the show by singing one of Lewis Flinns Shakespeare settings in sparkly, diaphanous drag, I thought we were heading in the right direction. (The perfect found-in-the-attic costumes are by Gregory Gale.) In her trademark cat-eye glasses, with her bitter-lemon moue, Hoffman, as Moth, is comedy just standing there; Harada, as Mustardseed, a warmth machine. Completing the set of Queen Titanias attendant daughters are the witty Z Infante as Cobweb and the winning Kristolyn Lloyd as Peaseblossum, as the name is rendered here.
Yet once their opening number ends and the plot begins, the poetry of the premise starts leaking out. Thats especially true in Beanes singsong dialogue, mostly rendered four feet to a line with a few extra left feet thrown in. It scans like an ice cream truck with a flat tire.
As for the rhymes, often stressed on the wrong syllable, one can only assume they are intended to make you cringe. There is no world in which fairy and ordinary align without damage to one of them. And when Titania (Julie Halston) explains the parentage of the young man she dotes on an offstage boy in Shakespeare, here the handsome Jamen Nanthakumar she has this mouthful to spit out: She was a princess her husband a king/But when she died, she did leave this changeling.
If it were only the verse that limped so badly, Fairycakes might still make viable comedy. But the story is lumpy too, its mechanical interweaving of Shakespeare and Disney somehow both predictable and holey. Each of the immortals is involved in the lives of one of the mortals: Peaseblossum encouraging Geppetto (Mo Rocca) to carve a son (Sabatino Cruz); Cobweb helping Cinderella (Kuhoo Verma) win her prince (Jason Tam); Mustardseed trying to wake Sleeping Beauty (Infante again); and Moth dumping Peter Pan for the pirate Dirk Dead-eye (Arnie Burton).
I doubt were meant to think much about Dirks provenance. (He apparently comes from Gilbert and Sullivans H.M.S. Pinafore, by way of Capn Crunch.) Nor are we meant to think much about anything else; Beanes run-here-then-there direction on the very small set by Shoko Kambara and Adam Crinson almost always chooses distraction over information. But distraction only works for a while, and watching the novelty expire well before the play does makes each of these scenes seem less like a comedy vignette than a condolence call.
Things are somewhat more interesting in the Shakespearean part of the plot, where a prophecy suggests that the impending divorce of Titania and Oberon (Burton again) will result in the deaths of their daughters. Now Puck (Chris Myers) enters the story, hoping to undo the curse and win the love of Peaseblossum, who disdains him for giving her the nickname that is also the shows title. How Cupid, a large cricket and Queen Elizabeth are dragged in as well, I leave for you to discover.
At a baggy 2 hours and 15 minutes, its all too much, and too little. Or it was for me; others seated nearby seemed to be having a better time. One of them explained to me, later, at home, that he had always enjoyed camp on its own terms, excusing its longueurs and illogic as the price, or even the source, of the entertainment. He name-checked the Ridiculous Theatrical Company and the old days of Wigstock, both of which featured amateur performers among the professionals.
But amateurism as an aesthetic is a tricky proposition. Charles Ludlam, the Ridiculous star, and the better drag queens at Wigstock had in common painstaking precision. Even celebrating too-muchness, they knew the value of a tight fit and a tight edit.
Fairycakes does share some of the anarchic, insider energy of that genre, thumbing its nose at the usual theatrical necessities of coherence and critics. But it is, for the most part, too uncareful for its unsophistication. And editing does not seem to be in Beanes vocabulary, at least when it comes to actors. He perpetually indulges rather than cures his hams tendency to overdoneness.
What makes these over-the-top shortcomings especially apparent are the few moments that beguile with (relative) subtlety. Beane gets off some of his finely honed zingers, and Flinns songs, especially the setting of Sonnet 23 that opens the second act (As an imperfect actor on the stage) are truly lovely. (So is Lloyd, who sings the sonnet, accompanying herself on the guitar.) Tam, dashing in tails as Prince Charming and no less so in gold diapers as Cupid gets the generic suaveness of a royal on the make in a few strokes, almost as if he had built his performance on the far more detailed version of the character in Into the Woods.
And then theres Halston, who as always manages to pull the rabbit of real humanity out of the hat of caricature. Even while delivering a moral, shes funny.
That moral may not amount to much in Fairycakes its something about embracing the human capacity for change but in the hands of an old pro like Halston, it sounds like news. Now if only the play itself would listen.
Tickets: Through Jan. 2 at the Greenwich House Theater, Manhattan; fairycakestheplay.com. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
Credits: Written and directed by Douglas Carter Beane; original music by Lewis Flinn; sets by Shoko Kambara, Adam Crinson; costumes by Gregory Gale; lighting by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew; properties by Andrew Diaz; hair by Bobbie Zlotnik; makeup/tattoos by Andrew Sotomayor; production stage manager, James Fitzsimmons; company manager, Joy Sims; general and production management, Evan Bernardin Productions; choreographer and associate director, Ellenore Scott. Presented by Runyonland Productions, Joanna Webb & Maxwell Zeldovich, Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, Wendy Federman/Heni Koenigsberg/Jamie Deroy, Drew and Dane Productions, Jacob Stuckelman, Alex Robertson, Douglas Carter Beane, Jonathan Demar, in association with Joseph Hayes and Matthew Troillett.
Cast: Mo Rocca, Kristolyn Lloyd, Sabatino Cruz, Jackie Hoffman, Kuhoo Verma, Z Infante, Ann Harada, Jamen Nanthakumar, Julie Halston, Arnie Burton, Chris Myers and Jason Tam.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times