Like a Sunday-school pageant or a Civil War re-enactment, Target Margin Theater's new six-hour staging of Goethe's "Faust" deserves hearty admiration for its ambition and concentrated effort. It does not, however, require the attendance of any but the most masochistic German scholars. For what director David Herskovits has put on the stage of Manhattan's Classic Stage Company is a shambling, unevenly acted, erratically designed mess.
Goethe's unique twist on the legend of the world-weary egghead who makes a deal with the devil is that in this case, it's a wager: Faust (Will Badgett) will hand over his immortal soul only if Mephistopheles (David Greenspan) can deliver one moment of perfect bliss. Mephisto does his devil best, at one point even nabbing mythical Helen of Troy (Daphne Gaines) for Faust's delectation, but eventually all he touches turns to ruin.
Likewise, Herskovits' production labors hard and fast to stimulate but delivers precious few epiphanies. Carol Bailey's endearingly handmade set elements, which rely heavily on plywood, felt and random detritus, are moved around by the 10- member cast and a trio of impassive stagehands, and the cast leaps in and out of Kay Voyce's sometimes witty, often desultory costumes with Olympic stamina.
They give us songs, fights, prayers, orgies, long philosophical discourses, even the occasional joke. What's missing is any stylistic glue to hold all this flotsam together. That lack of shape and coherence makes the six hours - split into two parts like "Angels in America" - seem twice as long.
Douglas Langworthy's deft new translation, a free-ranging mix of the arcane and the colloquial, sounds as though it would make a good sit-down read. A few of the actors make it a pleasure to hear: As Mephisto, the magnetic Greenspan looks like a rail-thin cousin of Dennis Hopper and gives his lines bottomless shadings of irony and contempt. Capering about mostly in dapper suits, he briefly dons a terrifying wig and dress to impersonate a Gorgon during the play's Greek idyll, and he gives a sting to its best curse: "Go to hell - all your relatives are there."
As Gretchen, whom Faust wins and ruins, Eunice Wong touchingly conveys a brimming but fatal curiosity. Her final mad scene, which closes the saga's first half, marks the evening's only credible emotional climax.
But neither of the actors who play Faust - the stiff Badgett in the character's elder form, the slightly more supple Ty Jones as the younger model - makes the language breathe, or conveys the stages of Faust's journey from dissatisfaction to desire and back. Sleepwalking around in their pajamas, they look like armchair academics who'd rather be left to their books.
The rest of the cast can't be accused of a lack of energy. They've got rather too much of it, and it's often poorly focused. The strapping Wayne Alon Scott, for instance, plays a dizzying variety of roles with a series of funny accents and walks, but precisely the same mugging attitude. A few of the women fare better: Gaines makes a striking, Nubian-goddess-like Helen, and Aysan Celik has a hypnotic presence when she's not doing daffy cartoon voices.
The actors can't shoulder all the blame. Herskovits takes an almost casually dutiful approach to the sprawling, picaresque narrative, so that when the action isn't bafflingly obscure, it's just plain dull. As if to make sure we stay awake, though, he unleashes a relentless sound design, credited to John Collins. Ear-splitting thunderclaps alternate with funk riffs, cocktail jazz with Beethoven. And bagpipes - lots of bagpipes.
By the end of the ordeal, we may feel a theatergoers' version of Stockholm syndrome and wish our captors well. Look at how hard these kids are working! But this can't be confused with a recommendation to join them in this no-funhouse. As one character says, "Art is long and our life is so short." Precisely.
FAUST, PARTS I & II. By Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, translated by Douglas Langworthy. Through May 20 at Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St., Manhattan. Single tickets $35-$40; both parts $55; 212-279-4200. Seen Monday.