“I’ll go with you to the end of the world,” Charles Dodgson (Michael Maloney) tells 7-year-old Alice Liddell (Sasha Hanau) near the end of “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground,” which is further than most audiences will want to go with Martha Clarke’s directorial debut in London.
A prospect for Lincoln Center Theater, which put seed money into a workshop at Clarke’s Connecticut home, the collaboration with Christopher Hampton needs a radical injection of life if it is to travel farther. As it is, the project is gorgeously designed, beautifully acted by its leading man — and almost entirely stillborn.
The creative intention is similar to that behind Gavin Millar’s “Dreamchild,” a great film from a decade ago that refracted Lewis Carroll’s writings through the repressions of the Victorian era and the very particular clamped-down psyche of Carroll’s alter ego, Oxford mathematician Charles Dodgson. (It also recalls the superior “Haddock’s Eyes,” which played Off Broadway in 1987.) But instead of setting up various repercussions and resonances, the play settles mostly for recitations; it’s a visually arresting gloss on its source material, not an imaginative artistic encounter with it.
The occasion might have been freed up if Clarke and Hampton had strayed from Carroll’s own work rather than being tethered to it in a way that Clarke, whose background lies in choreography, must have found limiting. All the familiar characters are here — the Mad Hatter and Red Queen, the Walrus and the Carpenter, most of them embodied by a busy supporting trio of performers — but they emerge as set pieces for the cognoscenti, not expressions of a dampened-down eccentric.
There’s certainly a play in Maloney’s quiet, stuttering Dodgson, who says at the outset he’s “always been fond of children, except boys,” but it remains unwritten in favor of an elegant tableau vivant shutting out all but the most avid Carroll buffs.
Was Dodgson’s interest in young Alice a dangerous liaison of the sort Hampton has written so well before? The play, eager to avoid salaciousness, raises the issue briefly — in a sequence in which Dodgson starts unbuttoning her blouse in preparation for a photograph. Pedophilia is not the topic; melancholia is, with Dodgson lost in a sad, private world enlivened only by powers of fantastical storytelling in which logic — happily — holds no sway. (His birthday, he tells Alice, is “once every seven years on the fifth Tuesday in April.”)
Robert Israel’s sloping set, all skewed angles and odd props (a piano, a doll’s house, a top hat), is as tantalizing as any in town, and should be retained when the National stages “Three Sisters.” Lighting designer James F. Ingalls, a second longtime Clarke collaborator, offers his usual rich palette: The closing rain-streaked tableau has a visual poignance not matched by the accompanying text.
With his clotted walk and hesitant glances, Maloney, too, is an enormously poignant presence; and his support for 9-year-old newcomer Hanau, whose sweet-faced Alice was having a rough case of opening-night nerves, made for a uniquely moving instance of thespian generosity. The two play together with great delicacy but cannot burst the constraints of a venture that ultimately seems as repressed as its subject — a Mad Hatter’s tea party, indeed, that rarely invites in the audience.