Theater review: 'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark' at Foxwoods Theatre
Well, it turns out there is a valid reason the producers of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” have been keeping critics at bay. Julie Taymor's $65-million, accident-prone production, featuring an erratic score by U2’s Bono and The Edge, is a teetering colossus that can’t find its bearings as a circus spectacle or as a rock musical.
The endlessly postponed official opening was last moved from Feb. 7 to March 15, but the battle over health care reform has a better shot at being resolved before the manifold problems of this frenetic Broadway jumble get fixed.
In the meantime, “Spider-Man” has been making lucrative lemonade out of all the lemons the media has thrown an embarrassing spotlight on. (The show, previewing since late November at the Foxwoods Theatre, has already beaten “Wicked” in the weekly box office tallies.) Not even a nuclear bomb detonation, as the satiric newspaper the Onion joked, can stop this juggernaut, which has survived financial crises, a spate of cast member injuries and enough bad press to sink a presidential candidate.
But the time has come to assess the work, not the hullabaloo surrounding it. So much emphasis has been placed on the technological hurdles, the notion that “Spider-Man” is trying things that have never been attempted before in a Broadway house. What sinks the show, however, has nothing to do with glitches in the special effects. To revise a handy little political catch phrase, “It’s the storytelling, stupid.” And on that front, the failure rests squarely on Taymor’s run-amok direction.
This is, after all, her vision, and it’s a vision that has been indulged with too many resources, artistic and financial. The production, lacking the clarity that's born out of tough choices, adds when it should subtract, accelerates when it should slow down. Taymor’s inventive staging of “The Lion King” was a victory for the craft and commerce of theater alike. But the investors of “Spider-Man” have inadvertently bankrolled an artistic form of megalomania.
The book, by Taymor and Glen Berger, is an absolute farrago, setting up layers and subplots before the main narrative line has been established. A female spider figure from Classical mythology named Arachne (T.V. Carpio) has been introduced, mucking up the traditional Marvel tale. There’s even a chorus, a group of comic-book-addicted kids, who at first appear to be joshing fans of the “Spider-Man” saga but later seem to be actually inventing the tedious version unfolding before us. Apparently, they’re the creative team’s surrogates. Not that it matters much in the end. The conceit is dispensed with as the second act transforms into a video game, interrupted by high-flying shenanigans that had many in the audience nervously bowing their heads as human cartoons swooshed above them.
The biggest shame in all of this is that the leads — Reeve Carney, who plays Peter Parker/Spider-Man, and Jennifer Damiano, who plays Peter’s love interest, Mary Jane — are utterly captivating. Their appealing sensitivity, however, is no match for the machine they’re trapped in. Forget about the snarling threats of the Green Goblin (Patrick Page decked in a verdant, plasticky getup that would seem obvious even for a Halloween parade) — the real villainy is Taymor’s overreaching desire to top herself.
The music is hit or miss, with three screechers for every rousing cri de coeur rock ballad. But the show is most alive when the sound that Bono and The Edge made famous connects to the emotional predicament of Peter Parker, who’s torn between the demands of crime-fighting and the dictates of his own homebody heart. The best numbers, “No More,” “Bouncing Off the Walls” (thrillingly staged as the title suggests) and “If the World Should End,” emerge from the protagonist’s or Mary Jane's inner state of being. Too much else, unfortunately, is a cacophonous brew.
The visual world of the production is more confusing than mesmerizing. Taymor, working with a fleet of designers, seems unable to settle on a style, bounding between comic-book cut-outs and expensive sci-fi gadgetry, between ingenious thrift and galumphing glitz. It would be pointless to sort out the hodgepodge of historical eras, but, among other jarring incongruities, there's a reference to the Internet at a newsroom so comically old school it would seem to predate Clark Kent.
Incoherence isn’t much fun to sit through. The two friends who attended Friday night's performance with me, a fashion executive and a filmmaker, both regular New York theatergoers, were muttering to each other before the first act was done. My fashion industry friend, who bought the tickets, spent the second act savoring a martini at the bar at Sardi’s. The filmmaker stuck it out with me, hoping against hope that Taymor’s vision would somehow pull itself together. The poor guy left Foxwoods feeling as though he had been lured inside someone's psychotic hallucination.
The aerial antics were impressive to an acrophobic like me. I feared for the actors’ safety, though, stupidly or not, I managed to convince myself that every safety measure was being employed. But there’s a kiddie show aspect to these soaring stunts that seems at odds with a spectacle that many will find too complicated, brooding and weirdly suggestive for young children.
Who exactly is “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” for anyway? The only answer I can come up with is an audience of Julie Taymor types who care only about panoramic sensibility— a bit of slow-mo choreography here, a smattering of diabolical mask work there. Much as I enjoyed the clever shifts in perspective during the skyscraper scenes, it was hard for me to picture adults or young people yearning for a second visit, never mind critics who may feel obliged to check back in with the production when (or should I say if?) it officially opens. Nothing cures the curiosity about "Spider-Man" quite like seeing it.
Perhaps this is why the show’s long-term prospects seem to me nearly as grim as the fate of Bette Davis' character in another work with 'dark' in the title — “Dark Victory.” Not since that 1939 weeper have the words "prognosis negative" seemed so apt.
Photos: Top, Spider-Man saves the day! A scene from "Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark"; bottom,
the Green Goblin (Patrick Page) duels with Spider-Man (Reeve Carney) high atop the Chrysler Building. Credit: Jacob Cohl/8 Legged Productions