West Coast Premiere Of Allan Knee’s Syncopation
Also see Richard's review of Red, Hot & Cole
The Marin Theatre Company is presenting the west coast premiere of Allan Knee’s Syncopation. This nostalgic romantic drama debuted at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre in 1999 where it won a citation from the American Theatre Critics organization. The production has played in various cities in the east and Canada.
Syncopation takes place in 1911 on New York's Lower East Side. It is the era of the famous dance team of Irene and Vernon Castle - everyone wanted to "be" this couple. Henry Ribolow (Charles Shaw Robinson), a 42 year old Jewish meatpacker who lives with his mother, is passionate about becoming a prize winning ballroom dancer. Henry rents a drafty and dusty dance loft once used by Vernon Castle where he can sharpen his craft. Henry is somewhat of a loner and lives only for dance. He likes to watch people, and he tries to imitate their walks with new dance patterns. Some of his dance steps remind me of John Cleese's funny walks in the Monte Python series.
Henry needs a partner so he places an advertisement in the paper stating “Searching for a woman with a desire to be a ballroom dancer. To meet once a week for practice, eventual success, and to one day dance for royalty. If these are your dreams and longing too, please join me.” Anna Bianchi (Lisa Morse), a 24 year old Italian who sews beads on women’s garments, answers the ad. Anna is one of those liberated women of the early 20th century who might be called a free spirit willing to try anything.
Anna belongs to a group that she calls the “Odd Women,” or suffragettes. Even though Anna is engaged to another man, she slowly warms up to Henry and his dreams while Henry becomes obsessed with Anna's life outside of the loft. However, Anna finds a cape-wearing chap named Theo in the second act causing Henry to be crestfallen. He becomes moody and his dreams are smashed. But, as in those “lets make the ending happy movies,” everything comes out ok. This is just good old prime time sitcom stuff.
The couple uses early Castle-type dances thoughout the 2 hour 15 minute production. The playwright uses these dances as symbols for persons embracing new ideals and aspirations during the early 20th century. The historical context, such as womens’ rights and the new entrepreneurial spirit of America, is narrated by the two characters in a diary-like monologue.
Syncopation starts out very slow and is really too mild-mannered, taking a long time before any chemistry develops between the two characters. I have a hard time believing that Charles Shaw Robison (who was excellent in Kabul/Homebody and Moving Bodies) is a 42 year Jewish meat packer from the Lower East Side of Manhattan. His accent just does not ring true. There is not a moment of believable emotion coming from him at first. However, as the play progresses, he improves; Robison then shows distressed charm, melancholy perseverance and real pain. New York actress Lisa Morse has the energy and charm to make her character interesting. She grows more multifarious and convincing, especially in her second act speeches.
Eleanor Reissa's direction is restrained and could have more punch in the those opening scenes. The dialogue is very stilted during those scenes, even when Henry is delivering a monologue about the other dancers that he has interviewed. Both Moore and Robinson are fair dancers, but the characters are not supposed to be professional. They also maintain good conversation tactics when dancing. Andrea Bechert’s set design is a free floating set of a bleak and sandy dance loft. There are projections of the Brooklyn Bridge and Coney Island in the background during some of the scenes. Dance collaborator Lawrence Erwing has given the couple simple routines, but I thought more could have been made of these sequences. Costumes by Anna Oliver are good period outfits, especially the dresses for Lisa.
Syncopation runs through April 13 at the Marin Theatre, 397 Miller Ave, Mill Valley. Ca. For tickets call 415-388-5208 or online at www.marintheatre.org. There next production is Visions of Kerouac by Martin Duberman and directed by Lee Sankowich. It opens on May 8th and runs thru June 8th.