Unsentimental journey

I must admit that I wasn't anticipating with delight Theatre Three's perennial holiday production of The Fantasticks. Nothing against the nice folks at T3, but I'm the kind of fellow who considers seasonal sentiment a prison sentence. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker when she was a New York stage critic for "Vanity Fair," I don't appreciate being dragged through whimsy against my will.

Theatre Three, just like the Great White Way, depends on revivals because American audiences have seemingly lost their willingness to be surprised and provoked by live theater. The fact that admission to a play in Dallas costs anywhere from two to five times the price of a movie ticket explains a lot, of course--we critics might not be so inclined to use adjectives like bold!, original!, and interesting! if our own pocketbooks felt the pinch.

I suspect, though, there is a secondary explanation. It involves the dramatic shrinkage of the American attention span over the last three decades. Theater audiences don't have to worry about paying too much attention at holiday revivals, which are mounted to tell us what we want to hear about the triumph of the human spirit, the moral superiority of the downtrodden, those less-than-obvious benefits of abject suffering, yadda yadda yadda. Every year we can celebrate virtue without having to actually practice it.

Being unfamiliar, except for one song, with the 37 year-old stage phenomenon known as The Fantasticks, I wandered into T3's theater-in-the-round space fearfully. Would the company provide an on-site nurse to administer insulin? If not, would my health insurance cover the ambulance and subsequent hospital treatment required to rouse me from my sugar coma?

Although The Fantasticks contains its share of feel-good overtures, they are in service to a worldview that is weary, unsentimental, and at times downright sour. In the end, the show affirms the power of love--do you really think T3 audiences would return year after year to get curve-balled some existential downer?--but manages, in the process, to grind the romantic impulse under its heel. Neither of the star-crossed lovers in this musical by Tom Jones (not of "She's a Lady" fame) and Harvey Schmidt get off easy. Their hard-earned wisdom about the nature of love is a trade-off, a war-time concession so that both can still enjoy a little bit of youth after the big bad world has crushed their youthful illusions.

The confident, sometimes inspired cast assembled by Theatre Three makes the proceedings go down smoothly. Indeed, thanks to a trio of Dallas theater veterans, I found myself treasuring those blasted tender moments--a sprinkle of wicked comic timing was the spoonful that let me taste these extremely familiar themes anew.

The Fantasticks is advertised as America's longest running theatrical production. It debuted in New York City in 1960 and has played there ever since. T3 premiered the show for Dallas audiences back in 1968, then continued productions sporadically throughout the '70s and '80s. The decision was made in 1990 to present the show as a regular featured holiday attraction.

The musical concerns a young man and woman (Ashley Wood and Emily Matzner), next-door neighbors, who fall madly in love. Their fathers (Jerry Haynes and Jac Alder) have concocted an elaborate plan to ensure these two lovebirds are caged together--they cook up a phony feud, build a brick wall between the beloveds, and stage a mock kidnapping attempt to hasten the wedding.

Why all the fuss? The musical number "Never Say No" informs us that children tend to do whatever they're told not to do. These old gents believe their feigned disapproval will speed up the process.

And yet, the young people's romance is premature--or, more accurately, immature. Act Two opens under the glare of sunlight, after the couple have slept off their mutual infatuation. They are bored, even disgusted, by one another. Each sets out to conquer the unknown dangerous world around them.

The Fantasticks relies on a kind of pre-deconstructionist attitude that constantly references its own bare-bones theatricality. The show is oddly prophetic in the way it predicted the self-consciousness that's rampant in movies and TV. The characters in this musical routinely refer to the fact that they are characters in a musical. The production relies on theatrical devices so simple, even skeletal, the broad comic tone of the writing begs the actors to deflate illusion with smart-ass asides.

Case in point, the presence of The Mute (Richard-Michael Manuel) and a narrator named El Gallo (Greg Dulcie), both of whom whip in and out of the action like Christmas shoppers through a turnstile. The Mute is a propmaster who provides everything from gentle rain to a brick wall to a raging bonfire. When Jerry Haynes speaks to him and doesn't receive an answer, Haynes shrugs: "I forgot you were supposed to be deaf." The Mute's brick wall, a cane pole raised almost above the young couple's heads, is also a running source of commentary.

El Gallo, on the other hand, exists to repeat the moral of the show and direct us through the narrative, much like the jesters and fops who presided over centuries-old European comedies. But he exerts a rather more hands-on influence, from playing fatal seducer of the girl to humiliator of the boy to slick con artist who nets the father.

T3's The Fantasticks flexes impressive comic muscle whenever Jerry Haynes and Jac Alder take the stage. I've seen Mr. Haynes in several Dallas shows, so I wasn't surprised by his masterful mischief. I'd never seen Jac Alder perform, however. Mr. Alder happens to be the artist director of Theatre Three; his tart, agile line readings here suggest he should spend less time behind the desk and more in front of the footlights.

As a frail classical actor hired to stage a crisis in the lovers' lives, Terry Vandivort is self-indulgence channeled into hilarious self-critique. At one point during the show, his senile thespian shuffled onstage with a Theatre Three playbill for The Fantasticks, flipped through it, then contemptuously cast it aside, snorting, "I'm not even in this show."

Surprisingly (for me, anyway), The Fantasticks proves to be a devilish spoiler of commercial theater's most cherished conceits about love. As long as Theatre Three understands this, they will satisfy audiences malnourished by the competition's holiday treacle.

The Fantasticks runs through January 5. Call (214) 871-3300.

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Jimmy Fowler