First Nighter": A Feeble "Fable," A Lively "So, This Then is Life"

When Chandra (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) slips happily through an upstage door to smell the trellis roses at the start of A Fable, David Van Asselt's new play at the Cherry Lane, it's the extremely naïve theater-goer who won't immediately guess that the young girl's innocent joy isn't going to last much longer.

It's hardly a spoiler to reveal that not more than a minute elapses before three armed terrorists (Edward Carnevale, Maxwell Hamilton, Hubert Point-Du Jour) arrive to attack Chandra, her father (Alok Tewari) and mother (Liza Fernandez), accuse them of being rebels, put out one of the father's eyes and leave Chandra and her mother for dead.

Before much more time passes, Jonny (Point-Du Jour), the soldier with a conscience, returns to see what amends he can make. That's when Luke (Gordon Joseph Weiss), who's narrating this, uh, fable, and Angela (Samantha Soule) encroach on well-meaning Jonny. She descends on a pole from above. He's already lurking.

That's also when only the extremely naïve theater-goer won't realize that the incessantly fulminating Luke is really the angel Lucifer, the one drummed out of heaven to become hellishly diabolical. That's when he and Angela, who's really an angel, of course (she wears white), decide to fight for Jonny's soul.

The idea is that the difference between good and evil has become so blurred in recent times that the warring pair, loving rivals for millennia, agree on using Jonny to revive what they think of as the good old days. At that point, the well-versed theatergoer may recall the musical Damn Yankees and Ray Walston as the Devil singing the Jerry Ross-Richard Adler ditty, "The Good Old Days."

The well-versed theatergoer should be so lucky to hear that number rather than Luke's ensuing rants. Instead of it, A Fable devolves into a rambling series of incidents combining--but not well--bits and pieces of Genesis, Romeo and Juliet and Candide in order to serve the good-evil conflict. (At a later moment it looks as if one plot twist is heading into the Leonard Bernstein-Richard Wilbur "Make Our Garden Grow" from the Candide tuner. Again, no such luck.)

At this point, the temptation for a reviewer who sat through all two and a half hours--with one intermission and one "7th-inning stretch"--is to write something venomously cruel and protest that the Devil made him do it.

The reviewer will refrain, just noting that Jonny and Chandra, among other positive and negative incidents, live blissfully on a farm for a short period and are separated while she tries to locate her missing, one-good-eye father. They sink into the depths of disillusionment, meet again under alienating circumstances and hope to repair their severed romance.

During the attenuated process, Jonny is forced to wander streets located, as the program specifies, "somewhere, almost anywhere, below the equator." In a whirlwind turn-around, he becomes a master of the universe, a stockbroker rolling in money and a sexy mistress. He gets entangled in political intrigue manipulated by a character cutely called Hallie Burton (Pamela Shaw) and abetted by Luke/Lucifer, now cutely dubbing himself Bill Z. Bub(sp?).

Chandra becomes involved with other ardent suitors. She also makes it clear she wants nothing further to do with Jonny when she eventually encounters him and he reports that he located her father and put out the poor man's other eye.

None of this is worth anyone's time or efforts--certainly not those of set designer John McDermott, costume designer Tristan Raines, lighting designer Joel Moritz, projection designer Kaitlyn Pietras and sound designer Janie Bullard, who've collaborated with director Daniel Talbott on an uncommonly unattractive production.

The best thing to be said about the actors is that they're getting a salary. Among the cast of 13, there are several whose work I've seen before and know to be skilled at the craft. With the exception of Soule and Shaw, not one of them is shown to any advantage here. It's a bad day for the entire troupe.

For the record: Elizabeth Swados contributed several songs to the wobbly enterprise. One, composed in a Kurt Weill mode (and performed by the ensemble in that style), asks the musical question, "Who decides who lives and dies?" The refrain is every bit as shallow as the lyric suggests. Swados, who hasn't been that active on stages recently, was widely respected in the '70s and '80s. This mini-score serves as evidence for those who argue she was highly overrated back in that day.

(The woman seated next to me, who said she'd bought her ticket because she'd seen Swados's name on the bill, left at intermission.)

Thinking about A Fable as it lurches along, any spectator, naïve or otherwise, will realize there are only three possible endings. If Van Asselt is a bleeding-heart optimist, Angel wins. If Van Asselt decides he's a pessimist (or, considering today's prevailing mood, a realist), Luke wins. If Van Asselt decides to leave it up to the audience to decide, then Luke and Angela neither win nor lose.

What do you think happens? See, you nailed it on the first guess.
Every so often, British actor/singer Simon Green drops by 59E59 with sidekick and pianist David Shrubsole and a clever entertainment they've thought up. This one's called So, This Then is Life. The premise this return? If someone somewhat along in years could alert his (or, presumably, her) younger self about lessons learned, what might be offered as helpful advice?

So Green is concerned with the acquisition of wisdom and passing it back to a more unaware former self, if only that were possible. To substantiate his point(s), Green draws on songs, poetry and prose that in some way veer along retrospective angles. It's quite a grab bag. Few acts, if any, include on their list of sources Walt Whitman, Christopher Hitchens, Philip Larkin, Rudyard Kipling, Daphne du Maurier, M F. K. Fisher, P. G. Wodehouse, Noel Coward, Stephen Sondheim, Maya Angelou, Tom Lehrer, Lily Allen, Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel and several others.

A close look at those names indicates that a conceit like the one Green is working from--one that could quickly become extremely cloying--is guaranteed not to sink to that level. Green, though his voice doesn't rise too far above adequate to the task--is a good-natured performer with just the right glint in his eye to make it all work.