CONNECTICUT & Beyond
St. Germain has given us Freud's Last Session Dr. Ruth, All the Way and The Best of Enemies and much more. The current work, benefitting from Julianne Boyd's adept direction, is non-historical. Dancing Lessons will enjoy a long, long life in theater. Cariani and Davis are individually and collectively evocativeand tender.
Unless one is present in the rehearsal hall, it is literally impossible to determine just how a director sculpts a show and coaxes enduring performance. Julianne Boyd, who is BSC artistic director, knew that John Cariani should play the role of Ever Montgomery, a man with Asperger's, in Dancing Lessons. So, too, Boyd wanted an actual Broadway dancer to play the badly injured Broadway dancer Ever approaches when he wishes to learn how to dance. Boyd, as director, is catalytic.
Cariani hesitantly comes to the door of the apartment occupied by Senga Quinn (Davis); Cariani is already into character, already on. She, living somewhere on the Upper West Side, is gloomy: she has torn two major ligaments in her leg, hobbles about with a cumbersome-looking brace limiting her every movement. The last thing she wants to field is a request from a nerved-out New York Institute of Technology Professor of Geosciences to teach him how to dance. She would rather shut him out immediately. But, she does not. He also happens to live on an upper floor of the same building.
St. Germain establishes a dramatic question almost immediately which is: How can these seemingly mismatched souls possibly get along for more than 30 seconds? She is down on her fortune and seemingly content to sit in her studio apartment listening to music, eating chips, wallowing. He, herky-jerky of movement and quirky of manner, is professionally successful but socially, shall we say, awkward and nearly terrified through his lack of confidence. Consider some sample dialogue. Senga, early, says, “I recognize desperation.” Ever knows his situation: "One in 68 children is diagnosed as Autistic." Still, his mathematical acuity has limits and he asks, "Why would I make jokes if I don't understand them?" Senga later tells him that, "Your body does more than just carry your head around." Ultimately, she will self-assess: "My whole life is a lie. I'm a dancer who can't dance."
This is a breathtaking, heartbreaking play yet one filled, at times, with delectable comedy. Cariani, as he proved at BSC last summer in Much Ado About Nothing as Dogberry, has masterful timing and unique physicality. A distinctive actor, he does not become his character but rather slides into Ever's skin with uncanny ease. Cariani has been on many television series, was nominated for a Tony Award for his portrayal of Motel the tailor in Fiddler on the Roof, and is a highly regarded playwright. Davis, with Broadway appearances as Roxie Hart in Chicago and as Gloria in Boeing-Boeing, finds the nuanced poignancy within Senga. Davis is poised, comfortable, intimate, and altogether winsome. The actors, who seem to know one another's characters precisely, perform with unusual feel and fluency. This belies the degree of difficulty accompanying these roles. Obviously, they have been rehearsing hard while studying autism and Asperger's in order to master the subject matter.
To say anything further would destroy the spontaneity to be enjoyed by witnessing this truly inspiring production. Convincing through natural performances by most proficient actors, Dancing Lessons makes its pivot upon the conflict between Ever and Senga. That established, the drama, inclusive of romance, is enveloping. St. Germain opens a window to the life of a high-functioning individual, Ever, who is dealing with Asperger'sand with Senga, too. The designers for this production are proactive. Costumer Sara Jean Tosetti's choices are perfect; and James J. Fenton provides a very full and recognizable residence where Senga lives. Additionally, key projections are supplied by Jeff Roudabush.
The mix of language, performance, feel, and coordination sets Dancing Lessons distinctively and admirably apart. This production, so moving and highly artistic, sustains far beyond its closing moments.
Dancing Lessons continues on the main stage at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, through August 24th. For tickets, call (413) 236-8888 or visit barringtonstageco.org.
- Fred Sokol