Now playing at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater on Broadway.
Few theatrical experiences are as awkward as a tearjerker that fails to jerk tears from you. In the case of War Horse, a play that attempts to dramatize all the suffering of the First World War through the suffering of a single horse, I'm prepared to concede that my own discomfort around horses (they might be beautiful from a distance, but they're intimidating and off-puttingly alien up close) couldn't possibly give me much of an affinity for this material. But I still think the problem transcends my own prejudices because, ironically, the problem is not the horse. All of the animals in War Horse are represented onstage by life-size puppets so gracefully naturalistic and expressive that you needn't be one of those inexplicable horse-lovers to find them affecting.
No, the problem isn't the three-dimensional animals but the one-dimensional humans, particularly the horse-besotted hero who doesn't seem to care a whit about the death and anguish of any of the people he meets, not compared to the loss of his goddamn horse. His astonishing lack of empathy poisons everything. It makes me recoil from the play's human lead and instinctively resist the animal lead, so when that final lachrymose climax rolls around, I'm more annoyed than touched.
If it weren't for the puppetry, War Horse would be an utter failure. Instead, the puppetry of the production is so haunting and powerful that it redeems the play to a great extent. I don't know quite what to make of that, but there it is: the spectacle of the production is so artful that it makes a flat, treacly, ill-conceived play worth seeing.