Before stepping into the 5th Avenue Theatre last night, I remarked to a friend that it seemed apt that the “No Firearms” sign was adjacent to the press table. This was a press premiere for the company’s latest production, Jasper in Deadland, and critics do love to put holes through fresh meat. As it happens, if I had brought a gun, I likely would have turned it on myself…but then I might have ended up eternally in the painful banality of the world presented on that stage. It would have been better to bring a shovel.
I take no pleasure in reporting that the land Jasper inhabits is more dud than dead. I read The Divine Comedy almost once a year, and hold dear every psychopomp myth of every region of the world. There is little more compelling than the divide between life and death, being and non-being, and the idea that crossing between the threshold grants the power to see both sides with more clarity and be a guide to others. I was looking forward to a contemporary take on these existential questions. I was looking forward to seeing theatre bring to life original and classical denizens of “the other side.” What one gets instead is a thin story with simpering leads, poor character development and a series of disappointing “twists” that almost go unnoticed among the myriad other cliches that make up this underworld.
The premise: Self-loathing and angsty teenager Jasper (played by Broadway golden boy Matt Doyle) is afraid of love and pushes away his best friend of many years, Agnes, after their first night of physical intimacy. She then promptly does the most rational thing we see in the entire performance. She jumps off a cliff. She doesn’t intend to die, as this is a cliff over a river into which Jasper, a good swimmer, has dove and swum many times. But Agnes is afraid and not much of a swimmer and has always refused his prodding to jump in with him (metaphor alert), so in the unconvincing and frenetic opening of the musical we are made to imagine Jasper jumping in after her and landing in the underworld.
There is no explanation why he ends up in the underworld alive. The writers Ryan Scott Oliver and Hunter Foster treat everything about the underworld quite arbitrarily, assuming that the audience will just say, “Oh, it’s the afterlife. Why should it make sense?” To which I would justifiably reply, “Why then should we care?” Because there is nothing inventive about this underworld, unlike the underworlds of visionaries like Lewis Carroll and Dante Aligheri—for indeed, it is Dante’s strangeness as much as his mastery of language that has made him the immortal prince of poets. Carroll and Dante were critiquing the worlds they knew (and Dante was settling scores, too) while maintaining some sense of an inner logic, and though Carroll’s Alice is but a child, he puts great sense into her mouth, while Dante’s own persona in the poem is humbled by other great minds, including his guides, Beatrice and Virgil.
In Jasper, we get no such great insight and a world of pastiche. The speakers are narcissists with a serious case of #firstworldproblems, and the underworld comes off like a dull Gen-X playground with a dash of Millennial media-savvy. It’s a new musical, and it already looks dated…but of course it does, when it self-consciously places itself among truly immortal and ancient tales. Oliver and Foster seem to reference these gods and figures (again arbitrarily, and at times shoehorning words into characters’ mouths) just to give the audience some sort of foothold into an incoherent world, and maybe give some of the more easily self-impressed literati in the room a chance to say, “Lol I c wut u did there.”
And how do the writers repay these traditions for their service? By turning them into a cavalcade of hammy cameos. The script isn’t entirely devoid of wit, and the gods get a few laughs, but they all come pretty cheap. Worst of all, Dante and Beatrice have their own grotesque cameo early in the second act. Dante is reduced to a grotty lothario and Beatrice is reduced to a Real Housewife of New Jersey. Characterizations aside, their actual histories are rewritten, such that Dante professed his love to Beatrice, hit it and quit it, and that one night of “Pasta fazool” (their term, not mine) is what inspired him to finish his epic poem on the nature of judgment, mercy, human frailty and strength, the very axis of the universe, which is a chaste and divine love.
At this point, I really have to question if Foster (the book’s original author) has ever done more than skim the cliff notes of The Divine Comedy. After a maudlin, slapstick first act that was clearly spiraling down with its broader message, to see the author of an actual masterwork lampooned so lazily was especially bitter, as if Foster (or Oliver) knew that his own work was subpar, and he had to settle a score with the one who did it best. Even Virgil is reduced to prancing caricature, so poets make out pretty rotten as a whole. (Can we expect much else from a writer who mispronounces Lethe to rhyme more easily with “breath” and “death”? And yet he avoided the low-hanging fruit of “crystal meth.” Bravo.) This sort of falseness—which feigns literacy, but betrays one to the dullest sort of media noise and cynical cliches—really does belong in the lowest circle of Inferno, the Judecca.
So the story is an insulting disaster…but what of the music? Well, the story spends a lot of time talking about forgetfulness, so it is perhaps intentional that the music itself is so forgettable. The themes that recur (“Goodbye, Jasper!” and “Stroke by Stroke”) are typical Broadway ballad fare, but like so many elements of the show, they don’t much feel part of the action. They fill the space, but with one or two exceptions they just aren’t any fun.
The key exception: “Hungry for Your Heart” was a blast, sung by the goddess Ammut (Brandi Chavonne Massey). One could even forgive the fact that the character of Ammut is written as a “sassy, black woman” stereotype because Massey goes full diva, taking what is a small role and making it the most electric presence of the night, a presence that shines a light in the gloom, frankly.
In most cases, the performers actually were better than their roles. This is especially true of Matt Doyle as Jasper. Doyle is a spry professional with a great voice and tons of charisma. Even the role of a dull-witted teen can’t hide that, but he doesn’t ever get to shine. Louis Hobson is Mr. Lethe, whom we might consider to be the villain of the story if we ever actually got a clear plan or motive from him. Hobson, too, showed himself to be a very strong performer, capable of pivoting physically and emotionally with aplomb, but his climactic song was a dud and a lot of hackneyed explication about the underworld fell to him in monologues, so the highlight of most of his scenes was the slapstick antics of Secretary Hathaway, played by Taryn Darr (channeling Bubbles, the secretary from Absolutely Fabulous, in a genuinely funny way).
Lots of voices strained, so I won’t single anyone out. The choreography by Lorin Latarro was competent and varied, never reaching a point of spectacle but working well within the set by Jason Sherwood, which also wasn’t much for spectacle but was clever and versatile. Lighting design by Robert J. Aguilar was exceptional in allowing for convincing transformations, and the same can be said of the costuming by Pete Rush.
In essence, the infrastucture for Jasper is sound, the performers are capable and the tradition of such tales is immortal. It falls apart because the story itself is so shoddy. I have not read Foster’s book, and I never will based on this. He comes across as a hack. Ryan Scott Oliver is not a hack. He probably has a long career ahead, but Jasper in Deadland seems to indicate that he feels the same and this has gone to his head. Too much of it smacks of a need to be hip rather than genuinely smart. The characters are obnoxious and nescient, and the format of stacking bit parts one after the other makes it feel very crowded with shades, ultimately bloodless. The attempt to hide aspects of characters to allow for a momentous reveal does not provide any worthy payoff and instead makes us care even less about their fate—which is already low stakes, seeing as they are already in the beyond and filled with ennui. By the end, they genuinely want to leave Deadland, and I couldn’t leave fast enough either, having absorbed their ennui over the past two and a half hours.
What’s most upsetting is that in writing this review, I myself can’t help go for easy jibes. They really write themselves with Jasper. “Goodbye, Jasper!” indeed.
I thought such acid was beneath me—
Shows how much I know.
Could I but drink from dulcet Lethe
and forget this whole damned show?