Thursday, June 30, 2016

Aladdin and Long Day's Journey Into Night: A Comparison

It's not atypical for me to see more than one play or musical over the course of the week, but it is rare that I see two shows back-to-back that are as different as Long Day's Journey Into Night and Aladdin, both of which I caught two weeks ago.

Or......ARE they so different after all?

Maybe I have too much time on my hands. Maybe I'm procrastinating, just a little, in the week leading up to a much-needed family vacation. Or maybe I've just got too much time on my hands and no real desire to fill it up by thinking about the news of the world. But for whatever reason, the more I think about these productions, the more they end up having more in common than one might assume. Both, for example, have actors and are performed before an audience on a stage in a theater. But wait! There's more!

Long Day has closed, so in lieu of a formal review, I offer you instead a brief comparison of these two Broadway gems:

Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions

1) Both shows are incredibly strenuous.
I read an interview with Jessica Lange recently during which she noted that she needed an exceptional amount of rest in order to perform the role of Mary Tyrone. No surprise, there: Mary is a meaty, challenging character who is onstage for most of a meaty, challenging (and very long) play, and Broadway shows typically run eight times a week.

The production of Aladdin is half as long, if that, but that doesn't mean it's a walk in the fucking park. Sure, Lange worked hard, but did she even once have to spin up from beneath the stage in a magical, whimsical poof of Disney smoke? Did she have to do cartwheels? No, she did not. You know who does, all the damn time? Tony Award© winner James Monroe Iglehart, who, as the Genie, has been doing that shit nearly every damn day, sometimes twice in a row, for the last two-plus yearsDon't get me started on the wacky dancing he does, or the way he whips up the crowd. Lange is luminous and wonderful and knows how to work a crowd, too, but she would never have been able to pull off what Iglehart does--especially after her second or third trip up to the Tyrones' infamous spare bedroom.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
2) Both shows make great use of stagecraft.
Ok, so maybe only one of them features a gigantic, shiny song-and-dance number set in a surprisingly clean, well-appointed Saharan cave housing myriad glittering baubles. Maybe only one of them has, in the same number, a cast of chorines who—once they, too, spin up from beneath the stage--want only to tapdance gleefully for a while before being pelted with confetti and streamers that erupt from the cave walls at the number’s climax like some sort of G-rated moneyshot. I’ll leave it to you to decide which show has the happy dancing in the fancy cave, which was honestly worth the price of admission.

The characters in Long Day get way too loaded to spin up from the floor of their summer home safely, so there’s less visual spectacle in that show. Then again, there’s a reason Natasha Katz just won the Tony for best lighting for her work on the production. The marathon-length last act takes place as said Long Day Journey[s] Into Night, so the set slowly descends into near-total darkness; the elder Tyrone, cheapskate that he is, doesn’t like to spend money he could use on booze for something as silly as electricity. Hence, throughout the scene, the Tyrone men attempt to control what little light is left: Jamie occasionally climbs onto a rickety chair to ignite a single, weak bulb above the table they all drink around, only to have James do the same to turn it back off moments later. This small, physical competition, which takes place after a full day of boozing, arguably generates more tension than ejaculating walls or tapdancing genies ever could. The extra light proves futile: it doesn’t keep the darkness away, but then again, that’s the point. And anyway, lighting characters who are slowly plunged, both literally and figuratively, into darkness is no small feat.

3) Both play a bit too much to stereotype.
Even by Disney’s standards, Aladdin doesn’t exactly possess what you’d call a progressive agenda. It regularly, jokingly denigrates the Middle East, takes cheap shots at its culture and people, and features a fat character whose sole purpose seems to be to make punny jokes about his endless desire for Middle Eastern cuisine. Get it? He likes to eat! He’s fat! Get it? It’s HILARIOUS!

Long Day‘s occasional nods at humor are subtler, but then, a two-by-four to the face is also subtler. So I'll give Long Day one more: it is far less culturally insensitive than many other American plays written during the first half of the 20th century--and even less loaded than some of O’Neill’s other plays. But then, his celebrated masterwork is about a bunch of Irish-Americans who spend all damn day fighting with one another, occasionally taking a break only to sneak swigs of hooch or shots of morphine. All that's missing, really, are a couple of leprechauns dispensing poetic, heavily accented platitudes (maybe someday, a revival could feature a big production number with pots of gold and gleeful little green men and glitter explosions and tapdancing, maybe in the spare bedroom). To its credit, though, there’s not a single snarky comment about the Middle East, or a single dumb food pun delivered by a fat guy in the whole four-hour affair.

4) Both probe similar themes
You don’t believe me? Think about it: Like the Tyrone family, the main characters in Aladdin are desperate for love, comfort, security, and mutual understanding. Like the Tyrones, some even engage in the most desperate attempts at wish-fulfillment, and ultimately seek comfort....IN SPIRITS. Said spirits are pretty benign so long as they are kept bottled up in small containers, but they wreak havoc when they are allowed to flow forth, after which much wackiness ensues.

Sure, Aladdin has a happier ending, but give it time: were it the four-hour odyssey that Long Day is, I bet the cracks in the palace would eventually show, Princess Jasmine and Aladdin would become totally codependent on one other, and Al’s rotund sidekick would move on to something way, way harder than hummous.

Liz Wollman

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