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Cupid and Psyche

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

If Ancient Greece had had modern cable television, the new production of Cupid & Psyche at Altered Stages might have been the world's first celebrity reality TV show. But if Joseph Fisher, who wrote this adaptation, had been that era's Mark Burnett, it would have been canceled after six episodes.

Picture, if you will: Naomi Campbell as Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love; Roddy McDowell (circa 1966) as her foil, Apollo; Barry Williams (of Brady Bunch fame) as that meddlesome archer; and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy's Carson Kressley as Aphrodite's bumbling servant. Sound like fun? If not, you're not the target audience for this haphazardly trendy updating of the Greek myth of jealousy, love, and concealed identity gone awry.

Neither Fisher nor director Alex Lippard have found any way to fashion elements as disparate as these - to say nothing of the cell phones, microphones, and sitcom bitchiness that pollute the production - into anything resembling a cohesive play. Nor have they concerned themselves with economy in terms of the text itself: The play, which runs nearly two and a half hours but covers barely half of the original myth, is stuffed to the point of bursting with soul-searching, romantic ruminations, and heated confrontations, yet little of value ever escapes the characters' lips.

That might not be such a bad thing. When biker dude Cupid (Jonathan Todd Ross), sent to waylay the beauteous Psyche (Stephanie Janssen) on behalf of his mother Aphrodite (Lanette Ware) but instead falling in love with her, begins his proclamations of love, they're of the traditionally generic kind. Pysche, whom he tricks into not seeing his face lest she not fall in love with him for the right reasons, sees right through them, as do we.

But for the usual necessary plot reasons, their relationship is built on lust, and the two must build from that shaky foundation into something honest and long-lasting. The meddling Aphrodite and Apollo (Johnny Sparks), to say nothing of always-at-heel retainer Runt (Nick Cearley) or Psyche's own psychotic family, intentionally don't make that easy. And, unintentionally, they don't make the show particularly entertaining.

Lippard's staging is refreshingly spare for this kind of highbrow camp, but the actors don't adjust their performances to match. Cearley, playing Runt as a gay Harvard preppie, epitomizes annoying, especially in the rite-of-spring tap dance (performed in sneakers) that opens the second act; Sparks's stuffiness grates just about as much. Ross, looking and sounding like a drugged-up poet with a gym membership, is a nonentity; Ware's distant performance as Aphrodite makes you understand where he got it from. Better is Kim Schultz as Psyche's older, caustic sister, who's always armed with an acidic attack for anyone or anything that displeases her.

Janssen, however, is a thoroughly appealing Psyche: Gorgeous, sophisticated, and smart, and able to make her character's angsty, early-20s declarations and tirades seem organic in ways no one else can. Clad in a clingy blue gown from costume designer Erin Elizabeth Murphy, she's a physical and spiritual vision, living up to her namesake's reputation. She provides this abortive update of a classic with what it needs most: true class.

She allows you to understand why Aphrodite is worried about her fading reputation, and why Cupid can't help but fall in love with her at first sight. It's just too bad there's so little else to love in this Cupid & Psyche.

Cupid and Psyche
Through April 30
Altered Stages, 212 West 29th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: SmartTix

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