Avenue Theatre

Much more than adult fare, children’s theater needs to awe the audience. Adults can understand the process of suspending disbelief, but kids skip right over the mental acrobatics and just want to be amazed.

And that’s the problem with Are There Alligators in the Sewers of the City of New York? a 50-minute children’s offering by Avenue Theatre. It simply sits there, with all its stitching and wires showing. There’s no sense of magic or wonder at all. The kids I took–nine-year-old Dan and six-year-old Will–saw right through the show’s machinations. Their reactions were less than enthusiastic. “It stunk,” said Will, who’s usually excited about everything. “It was OK,” said Dan, who’s usually, well, blase.

Though I’m sure Will would tell me he knows more about what he likes than I do, it’s worth pointing out that, despite the postperformance thumbs down, his attention didn’t waver much during the play. And Dan actually laughed on several occasions. Yet overall Peggy Simon Traktman’s Are There Alligators? falls pretty flat.

The piece opens with Molly, Danny, and T.J. on their way to a Halloween party. Molly’s dressed as a ladybug, Danny (played by a young woman, Karen Arndt) as a football player, and T.J. as a hobo of sorts. On the way to the party they pass an uncovered manhole, and T.J. talks the others into going down to look for alligators. Danny and Molly figure the alligator story is another of T.J.’s tall tales, but they’re game anyway.

The sewers turn out to be the lair of Ali Corpo, a gangly bank robber/snake charmer with sensitive ears. Rather than brandish firearms, Corpo uses his poisonous snake, Deadly Dudley, to commit his crimes. Dudley and a couple of his snake friends keep watch over the sewers too–the kids get in only because they happen to arrive while Dudley’s off having dinner with Corpo.

Once he’s been found out, Corpo forcibly keeps the kids from leaving. Molly, Danny, and T.J., who renounce violence and any plan that might actually harm Corpo, try to come up with a way to divert his attention so they can get past him and the snakes and go on to the party. In the process Molly and Corpo tap dance and Corpo charms a snake out of a basket.

At about this point there’s some weird sermonizing warning kids about the consequences of violence. Incredibly the Corpo character isn’t portrayed as potentially dangerous, just pitiful–this despite the fact that the kids are being held against their will in the sewers.

Finally T.J., the nominal hero, comes up with a plan. It turns out his big shopping bag isn’t holding the Halloween candy after all but a gigantic two-piece alligator suit. The suit itself, with ferocious jaws and teeth, is wonderful. But the idea that by dressing up in it the kids can scare Corpo and escape didn’t wash with Will or Dan. In fact they thought it was pretty preposterous. I thought it bordered on condescending.

David J. Ottenfeld as T.J. holds the whole mess together with a beguiling charm. The other actors don’t fare nearly as well. Bob Schiele as Corpo is awkward to the point of pathetic.

“It just wasn’t special,” Dan said as we left the theater. He was right, of course. And children’s theater, it seems, should be special–even if only for the moment. Despite good intentions, this one just doesn’t make it.