Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks by Richard Alfieri. Directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman. Dances choreographed by Kay Cole. Scenic design by Roy Christopher. Costume design by Helen Butler. Lighting design by Tom Ruzika. Sound design by Philip G. Allen. Cast: Polly Bergen and Mark Hamill.
When it comes right down to it, life is a precious, brittle thing; our vulnerability and our dependence on our friends (or even on the kindness of strangers) are things we should never discount. These are just a few of the lessons currently being driven home the hard way at the Belasco, where Richard Alfieri's new play, Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, just opened.
This is a play that desperately wants you to like it, and even dares you not to. It turns out that's a pretty easy dare to win, as rather than divining any new insights into relationships, Alfieri is more interested in pushing the audience's emotional buttons, with no attempt to hide his machinations. It's obvious early on that Alfieri knows the show is not complex drama and, indeed, could not be, but that does little to improve the way it lands.
Alfieri's writing is distressingly tidy, like the most maudlin of television where everything must be wrapped up in two hours, the only remnant the temporary warm, fuzzy feelings the viewers experience from connecting with the characters, however superficially. I doubt it's a coincidence that the last line of Alfieri's Playbill bio touts his adaptation of the script for Universal Pictures; he knows what he has, and he's taking it to the bank.
What he may not know, and what is only barely in evidence at the Belasco, is that Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks could have been an honestly funny, moving, and theatrical piece. Instead, a workable concept has been dumbed down and built up as garden-variety schmaltz. The play is repetitive in structure and writing, with characters' revelations obvious many scenes in advance, and all the conflict unambiguous because the story's resolution is a foregone conclusion.
But it starts well, with middle-age Michael Minetti (Mark Hamill) arriving at the Florida condo of past-middle-age Lily Harrison (Polly Bergen) to give her the series of dance lessons referred to in the show's title. Each week, she will learn a different style - the swing, the tango, the waltz, and so on. But before they can begin, their personalities clash - she is strait-laced and untrusting, the wife of a Southern Baptist minister; he uses foul language instinctively, has little control over his temper, and is gay. They overcome their differences long enough to become assiduously friendly, he gives her the lesson, and the scene ends.
Alfieri repeats this five times. Oh, there are always a few differences - in one scene she discovers a secret of his, in another he finds out she's lying about something else, he can help her with this, she can give him advice about that - but the fundamental structure never changes: meet, argue, resolve, and dance, a cycle that grows tiresome even before the first act ends. Director Arthur Allan Seidelman and choreographer Kay Cole do what they can to spice up each scene with some visual and emotional variety, but ultimately their tools are too limited to rescue the play from its inherent blandness.
That's certainly not to say there's nothing effective about the script or the production - Alfieri's comes up with a handful of legitimately funny character-driven jokes; Roy Christopher's set and Tom Ruzika's lighting are the perfect sunny antidote for the wet, dark days of fall, replete with bright colors and an enticing ocean vista; Helen Butler's costumes creatively explore the characters, situation, and dance style in any given scene; and Philip G. Allen's sound design is never overpowering.
Then there's Bergen and Hamill, both of whom are working overtime to make their sketchily drawn characters believable people, and they meet with a fair amount of success. Hamill is unquestionably entertaining, but sometimes overly brash and shallow in his delivery and seldom convincing as a reformed Broadway dancer. Bergen complements Hamill well both physically and vocally, her crackly delivery of Lily's barbs is nicely judged, and her handling of the script's more manipulatively emotional moments belie the dialogue's oppressively prosaic nature.
That nature, so vital to Alfieri in his writing, remains the show's most significant liability. Any play with sentiment this transparent toes a difficult line between effective drama and the curious sort of unreality that might make you feel but won't dig deep inside you. While Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks is firmly in the latter area, such plays can succeed on their own terms as long as they check all vestiges of reality with the audience members' bags and coats.
It was obvious long before a man collapsed in the front row late in the second act at Monday's press preview that this show could play no other way, and the ensuing 20-minute delay and arriving paramedics made the show's events seem more mawkish still. Being consummate professionals, Bergen and Hamill completed the performance, but the battle they were fighting with Alfieri against the untenable and unavoidable intricacies of real life had been lost early on.