Did you ever want to see a fairy-tale mash-up, set amid the magic of nature, offering clever rhyme and delightful song, with a powerful theme to bring it all home?
Well, this isn’t that.
“Fairycakes,” the laborious new comedy by Douglas Carter Beane that opened on 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 Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s 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. Beane’s 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 Flinn’s 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 Titania’s 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. That’s especially true in Beane’s 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 designed 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 we’re meant to think much about Dirk’s provenance. (He apparently comes from Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore,” by way of Cap’n Crunch.) Nor are we meant to think much about anything else; Beane’s 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 show’s 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, it’s 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’d 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 Beane’s 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 Flinn’s 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 there’s Halston, who as always manages to pull the rabbit of real humanity out of the hat of caricature. Even while delivering a moral, she’s funny.
That moral may not amount to much in “Fairycakes” — it’s 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.
Through Jan. 2 at the Greenwich House Theater, Manhattan; fairycakestheplay.com. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.