Life is hard for Jack, an aspiring young artist living on a Brooklyn farm with a mother who insists he stop painting cows and get a real job. To pay the rent, he is sent out to sell the family cow, Guernsey, but when he returns with only a handful of beans to show for the sale, his mother cries in anguish over her naïve, useless son. What she does not realize is that the beans are magic, and in Karl Greenberg and Dave Hill's Jack & the Beanstalk, a contemporary rendition of the classic tale, they grow into a soaring beanstalk that will lead them both into a riotous, rags-to-riches adventure. Jack's mother (Noreen Foster) is not a typical farmhand. She struts onstage in a leopard skin coat, waving a patent leather purse at Jack (Matt Mager) and bemoaning his laziness. She is not alone in her contempt. Guernsey (Drew Honeywell) is also fed up, scoffing at a sleazy bean salesman (Matthew Gandolfo) who promises to show Jack things he has never seen before: "He's never seen money before. Why don't you show him that?"
Honeywell, who plays multiple silly roles in this production, steals scenes adorably in every one. As Guernsey, she is a sassy tap-dancing cow dressed in a black-and-white spotted suit, and as the Goose who lays golden eggs, she looks childishly endearing in a puffy white dress with orange slippers. But as a melodious golden harp, she is seductive and enchanting, especially to the Giant (Ian Sweeney), who gazes fondly upon her in his castle made of clouds.
But far beneath the clouds Jack and his mother have lost their farm. While they spend the night sleeping outside of their repossessed home, the beanstalk grows, shown as a rising shadow behind a screen that extends to the ceiling. When they awake in the morning to find it, Jack is far more impressed than his mother, who regards it as nothing more than a lifetime supply of salad. She chastises Jack for climbing it, telling him only to "be careful" after he has disappeared into the sky.
Hungry, tired, and desperate for an easy way to pay the rent, Jack stumbles into the Giant's castle, where he meets a hyperactive Servant (Gandolfo), a golden Goose, and an angry Giant demanding the blood of an Englishman. Fortunately for Jack, the Servant is desperately trying to establish a vegan household and manages to sneak him out unscathed, not realizing he has kidnapped the Goose.
The next several scenes show the corruption that occurs when one is blessed with an endless supply of golden eggs. Jack's mother finally has the material possessions she craved when they were poor, whereas an Italian-suit-wearing Jack can now support himself without having to lift a finger. And yet, they do not seem entirely convinced their lives are any better than before.
Though this play is filled with fantastical characters, they inhabit an ordinary world with everyday demands that mix cleverly with their fairy-tale conflicts. Jack climbs a beanstalk to solve his financial woes, reclaim the farm, and pay the rent, while the Giant struggles with the Atkins diet and his Servant's tasteless tofu to relieve the stomach pains he endures from eating raw meat. Still, the real obstacles here are not health and finances but the characters' individual struggles to come to terms with their own self-worth.
These conflicts will be most appreciated by teens like Jack, who are often looking to find their place in the world, and adults like the Giant and Jack's mother, who understand the miseries of unpaid rent and indigestion. But Greenberg and Hall compensate by delivering well-aimed jokes exclusively for their younger audience members, such as having the Servant distract the Giant by telling him to change his diaper, which got huge laughs from the young ones.
And so with Manhattan Children's Theater's final play of the 2005-2006 season, the company closes in the same spirit it began—catering to children and adults alike with funny, mature story lines and complex characters who exist as real, relatable people in their whimsical worlds of make-believe.