In the final 20 minutes of "Chéri," now running at Signature Theatre, a woman behind me emitted a loud snore. A more perspicacious review, I’m afraid, no critic can write.
It disappoints me to say this, given its stellar and mostly girl-powered talent. Based on a 1920 novella by French writer Colette, Martha Clarke’s multidisciplinary adaptation features legendary ballerina Alessandra Ferri, award-winning actress Amy Irving, pianist Sarah Rothenberg and text by Tina Howe. Herman Cornejo, principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, is the only male in the whole show.
I was also intrigued to see how Clarke would interweave theater, music and particularly dance to explore the story’s central themes. Sensuality, love and preoccupations with youth and age, all have strong physical components that would seem to translate beautifully into dance.
For the first 20 minutes or so, my hopes remained high. Morning light streams into a Belle Epoque boudoir to reveal the beautiful, but aging courtesan Léa (Ferri) sipping coffee, while her virile young lover Chéri (Cornejo) dozes in bed. He arises clad in little more than her string of pearls -- he is obsessed with all things pretty and expensive -- and whiles away the day, as he has for the last six years, in a blissfully sensual dance with Léa.
Now here, I have to applaud Ferri and Cornejo’s dancing, as well as Clarke’s choice to cast them in these roles. Ferri rivets with her signature blend of physical command and emotional abandon, while Cornejo embodies the vain Adonis that is the title character. In the end, however, not even their prowess could rescue this tedious production.
The choreography, like the set, is voluptuous and intentionally off-kilter. This artistic choice is well suited to both the characters and the era, all of which are on the brink of losing control. But also like the set, the choreography never really changes, and neither does the music. This has the regrettable effect of masking important character developments, while protracting over a very long hour a story that could have been condensed into half the time.
Only Amy Irving’s interludes as Charlotte, Chéri’s mother and Léa’s friend (or "frenemy," to be precise), break up repetitive episodes of spin, toss, tumble, grope, repeat. Her spoken lines, peppered with cringe-worthy French, fill in the narrative gaps, while providing welcome comedic relief.
Chéri, we learn, is a natural-born hedonist who has attracted the gifts and affections of older women since childhood. He has been inseparable from Léa since coming of age, much to his mother’s chagrin, but it is only after he marries a girl of Charlotte’s choosing that he realizes he is in love with his older mistress.
After his honeymoon, he returns to Léa for one more night of passion, only to abandon her for good when he realizes she is no longer as beautiful as she used to be.
It is at this point that Colette’s novella actually ends, and it was around this time in the show when the woman behind me started to snore. But tired as I was of the choreography and music, I was kept awake by one vexing thought: just what was it that Léa saw in this clown anyway?
There are a few possible explanations, though the complexity of Ferri’s Léa suggested she was in it for more than just cut abs and a pretty face. More likely, he was a validation of the youth that she saw slipping from her reflection in the mirror (and that he was all too thrilled to admire in his own).
Alternatively, if we look at their amour as a microcosm of Belle Epoque France, perhaps his character was a symbol of the aesthetic and moral values of an age that was nose-diving to an end.
In any case, these interpretations are more nearly a reflection of what was going on in my head, rather than what was happening on stage. There, it was just more spin, toss, tumble, grope, repeat. When it became clear at the end of the scene that he was leaving for good, I didn’t feel sympathy for either character -- only relief that I wouldn’t have to endure their tiresome mating rituals anymore.
Bridging into the sequel to the novella, "La Fin de Chéri," the final scene is set six years after their parting, at the end of the Great War. Having fought in the trenches, Chéri is a mere shade of his former self, while Léa, Charlotte tells us, has gained a new lease on life.
Tormented by his lost love and the trauma of war, Chéri performs a furious solo that actually provides a refreshing change of choreographic pace -- so much so that I was almost disappointed when it came to an abrupt and sinister close.
But here, ’almost’ is the key word, for I am sad to say, I was actually glad when it was finally over. What was truly disappointing was that this production, with its rich source material and enviable pool of talent, did not live up to its potential.
"Chéri" runs through December 29 at Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W 42nd St. For information or tickets, visit www.signaturetheatre.org.