In the old days, the two parts of Graciela Daniele's "Dangerous Games" would have been half of a dance recital, their monotonous sultriness offset by "Gaite Parisienne" or "Garden of the Lilacs."
But now they are classified as theater, which means you have to see them as presentations of Ideas. Unless you consider "Gauchos are brutal" or "Repressive regimes are also brutal" Ideas, the show, however expert its dancing, is not very satisfying.
The first part, "Tango," is a Mickey Spillane-like depiction of an evening in an Argentinian brothel. The second is a version of the Orpheus legend that purports to depict the sadism of the recent regime of the generals.
While the choreography in both is virtuosic and danced with great vehemence and ardor, Daniele's imagination seldom goes beyond the adolescent in her depiction of the earthiness and sensuality of the brothel or the repressiveness of the generals.
Thus in "Tango," the men come to the brothel not so much to enjoy the women as to pick fights with each other, which then take place in a highly stylized manner. (The major interaction between the two sexes is the defloration of a new whore by two brothers, a grandiose bit of exhibitionism by the two men and the virgin, who is apparently a very quick study.)
There are enough dazzling steps in the piece to supply a seven-minute number in a musical but not a 40-minute ballet in its own right. When, toward the end, the men demand food and begin spearing a loaf of bread with the same intensity they attacked each other and the virgin, "Tango" descends to unintended (I hope) self-parody.
In "Orfeo," a young girl is taken from her parents, who are then murdered, and adopted by an evil militarist, Pluton, who sings lasciviously, "You'll be my child / We'll dance tango." In a dream her father, Orfeo, descends to a punk hell, where he endures some S & M games to rescue a young woman from Pluton. The story and the choreography are both sick.
The evening might have been more powerful if the dance were supported by exciting music (like the group you hear in the 34th St. BMT-IND station). Astor Piazzolla's thin music is of little help, since it imitates the style of tango but lacks the sensuous power of the real thing.
Even less help are William Finn's ridiculous lyrics. (The very first ones you hear, sung by the whores, are: "Mister, we flirt. / Like a flaming dessert. / Come taste us." They are not always this dumb, but they are never appealing or skillful.) Worst of all is the occasional dialogue, terse to the point of inanity.
Peggy Eisenhauer's lighting "sculpts" the dancers stunningly. Tony Straiges' simple sets help establish the tone. Patricia Zipprodt's costumes help the mood of "Tango" but accentuate the simplemindedness of "Orfeo."
The cast is impressive, especially Tina Paul as the virgin, John Mineo and Gregory Mitchell as her deflowerers, Mitchell as Orfeo, Rene Ceballos as the doomed woman and Ken Ard as Pluton. Admiring the energy and ferocity with which they do difficult - yes, "dangerous" - steps is not the same as being moved.
First what is it - fish, fowl or good red herring? "Dangerous Games," which started to live dangerously at the Nederlander Theatre last night, is a curious kind of double ballet-bill that appears to be masquerading as a Broadway show.
Or perhaps it is a Broadway show that bears an uncanny resemblance - despite a few odd words and some even odder lyrics - to a program put on by a small ballet company (15 dancers, of which only a lucky 13 appear at any one performance) conceived, choreographed and directed by the Argentinian-born Broadway choreographer Graciela Daniele? Whatever it is, I not only thought its spurious theatrics were awful, and that its gratuitous violence, apparently provided with some tight political justification by Daniele, ran close to pornography. But I was also sincerely puzzled as to whom the show was aimed at.
Is it meant to attract a dance audience (presumably), or a regular Broadway audience? Or both? Or merely admirers of leather and whips who find something oddly erotic about nicely brought-up ballet dancers pretending to be sluttish Argentinian whores, and perceive a potential political significance in unexplained physical violence?
The music is by Astor Piazzola - the Argentinian tango expert beloved by choreographers as diverse as Hans van Manen, Vicente Nebrada and Vladimir Vasiliev.
The trouble is that one slice of Piazzola tango sounds singularly like another, and Daniele has not the pure choreographic ability even to sustain an evening, let alone bring life to its level musical sameness.
Her choreography - the key to the evening, apart from the rapes, the whippings and the fights - is based on Argentinian dance forms, as was that wonderful Broadway dance revue of some years back, "Tango Argentino," the success of which, in part, I suppose, "Dangerous Games" is attempting to capitalize upon.
But in that revue the tango was revealed in all its dramatic and choreographic subtlety. Here it is hammered home with showy gestures and clumsy mock macho (perhaps "mocho" is the word for it) melodramatics.
The evening is in two distinct parts, held together only by the communality of the mood, music and monotony.
The first part, called simply "Tango," is obviously based upon Daniele's Off-Broadway show of some two years back, "Tango Apasionado" which was inspired by stories from the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, who was portrayed as a character in the piece.
Apparently, the Borges consent has been removed from the production - although at least aspects of that original, including the most striking central theme of two brothers and their violent relationship with a woman they share in common, seem to have been retained.
But as a whole it is now less attractive, dramatic and interesting, and as it was not all that attractive, dramatic or interesting in the first place, this is a disadvantage. Another distinct disadvantage both here and in the second piece, "Orfeo," are the lyrics by William Finn, a bathetic specialist in junk, monosyllabic rhymes.
"Orfeo" is itself an attempt to relate the story of a gauche gaucho hero (Gregory Mitchell) and his efforts to save the woman he loves (Rene Ceballos) from a satanic fascist beast with a bullwhip (Ken Ard), and to wrap the entire theme into some concept based on the legend of Orpheus.
It is an Orpheus with no lyre, no poetry and no actually recognizable story.
The sad thing is that the dancers do their level best to raise this grisly corpse of an evening into some semblance of life - as if they were literally flogging a dead horse.
Ard and Mitchell prove themselves excellent dance actors, as does Ceballos. Tina Paul, as the somewhat wan rape victim, is moderately effective as the woman dividing the two brothers played with style by Mitchell again and John Mineo.
But the dancers cannot hold up the whole show. It takes more than 13 to tango - at least effectively. It takes a dance as well as dancers.
If theater people want to make a spectacle of themselves on a Broadway stage, that is their inalienable right, but whatever happened to the poor audience's right to enjoy a few laughs in the face of such disaster? ''Dangerous Games,'' a new musical misfire at the Nederlander, extinguishes all opportunities for fun by shrouding its inanities in stern sermonettes on sexual politics, dour images from Greek mythology and real-life South American state terrorism. Mel Brooks notwithstanding, it's hard to have a hoot when the advancing chorus line consists of goose-stepping Black Shirts.
The production was conceived, co-written, directed and choreographed by Graciela Daniele, an artisan of show-biz perkiness who has folded simulated Bob Fosse struts into entertainments like ''Drood'' and ''The Pirates of Penzance.'' Since Jerome Robbins, there have been no Broadway choreographers, Fosse included, with the imagination and varied dance vocabulary necessary to sustain a full theatrical evening of dancing. Ms. Daniele would seem an unlikely candidate even to make the attempt - her previous musicals have been neither dominated nor distinguished by their choreography. And yet, presumably inspired by serious dance-theater experimenters like Pina Bausch and Martha Clarke, she has slammed together two hours of mediocre Broadway routines padded by repetition and crushed by pretense.
With its fetching Astor Piazzolla tango music and ''Evita''-like political posturing, ''Dangerous Games'' should in all candor be titled ''Don't Cry for Me, Tango Argentino.'' Act I, called ''Tango'' and seen in more atmospheric form Off Broadway two years ago under the title ''Tango Apasionado,'' is a meditation on masculine sexual brutality; it looks like a bus-and-truck tour of Fosse's ''Chicago'' and is acted in New Yorkese redolent of his ''Sweet Charity.'' Even so, the setting purports to be an Argentine brothel of the 1930's where a tango involving two brothers and the newest virgin on the block (unaccountably played by the oldest-looking dancer on stage) spirals violently out of hand.
Ms. Daniele's game, more insidious than dangerous, is to give theatergoers a little erotic titillation and then hector them for surrendering to such base instincts. She and her co-author, Jim Lewis, are reminiscent of those public censors who used to insist on viewing every last X-rated movie before imposing a ban. But even if ''Tango'' weren't a hypocritical exploitation of the machismo it purports to condemn, it would still fail as both sex show and morality play. The tango theatrics are so prim that even the bordello in ''Les Miserables'' offers rougher trade. The resolution of the heroine's nightmare is so perfunctorily attained that ''Tango'' could be a public-service skit about date rape.
Act II of ''Dangerous Games,'' titled ''Orfeo,'' is a retelling of the Orpheus myth dedicated to ''all the desaparecidos'' - the victims who disappeared during the reign of Argentina's junta in the late 1970's. The horrors of a police state are reduced to the symbolic figure of a mediocre rock singer (Ken Ard) brandishing a whip; the gatekeepers of the fascist hell tell the incarcerated to ''have a nice day.'' Here, too, there is a happy ending to sanitize the unspeakably cruel acts ostensibly under examination: a precocious child actor raises her arms to greet the dawn of a new and brighter day. Along the way to that finale, there are interludes of tepid folk dancing, more gringo than gaucho in style, and a wobbly lovers' pas de deux that might look corny in a June Allyson-Dick Powell musical.
As Ms. Daniele exposes the limits of her own talent by stretching it over too much time and space, so she exposes those of her cast. The company is composed largely of competent Broadway chorus performers, John Mineo and Rene Ceballos prominent among them, whose dancing, singing and acting cannot withstand the ruthless scrutiny of a center-stage spotlight.
Nor are the offstage collaborators at their best. The set designer Tony Straiges has put the red back into red-light district for ''Tango'' and given ''Orfeo'' an underworld that looks more like a bargain basement. Mr. Piazzolla's score, attractively played by James Kowal's band, cannot escape its sameness. When occasional lyrics are called for, and sometimes when they're not, they have been written in a ham-fisted pseudo-Brecht manner by the gifted William Finn, author of ''March of the Falsettos.'' The humor of a late-evening song about the joys of torture seems especially lost on the audience at ''Dangerous Games.''