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Dance Nation

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - May 8, 2018

Eboni Booth, Dina Shihabi, Purva Bedi, Lucy Taylor (kneeling),
Ikechukwu Ufomadu, Ellen Maddow and Camila Canó-Flaviá
Photo by Joan Marcus

The theatrical tradition of grownups playing kids, and bringing fresh nuance to adolescent angst, is long and honorable: You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, of course, and then there's that "Penny Candy" number in New Faces of 1952. But the practice seldom gets as vigorous a workout as it does in Dance Nation, Clare Barron's glimpse into early-teen sexuality, rivalry, insecurity, and pressure from above, specifically parents and teachers, at Playwrights Horizons. Barron's comedy-drama, but mostly comedy, has moments of fine clarity and humor and adds up to an eloquent plea on present-day teens' behalf: Please, please, don't ride us so hard. To get to those, though, you have to trudge through some uncomfortable and baffling passages.

"This is a play about 13-year-old girls," Barron writes in her author's note, though her script puts their ages at 11 to 14, and "really about how we carry what happens to us when we're 13 through the rest of our lives." OK, but by limiting her view to one Ohio dance class trying to boogie its way to a national competition, she's narrowing her focus. There's little indication of these girls' lives in school, or on social media, or anywhere beyond the rehearsal hall.

That still allows her plenty of elbow room to explore their battered psyches, and society's insistence on emphasizing competition at a particularly vulnerable moment in their lives. Consider Dance Teacher Pat, played with razor timing by the expert Thomas Jay Ryan, a genius at instructing impressionable youngsters in destructive, ego-crashing ways. He bullies ("no limp arms or I'll cut them off!"); he belittles; he encourages rivalry; and he dangles prizes in front of these poor kids to accentuate the winning-is-everything mentality that seems the prevalent philosophy these days. He thinks nothing of patting a student on the behind, a discomfiting image that isn't further explored. And he refers to them collectively as "Girls," even though there's one boy among them, Luke (Ikechukwu Ufomadu), who has a crush on hardworking, insecure Zuzu (Eboni Booth), who's always second-best and struggling to succeed in her first lead role, "the spirit of Gandhi."

They're a motley crew, all right, and Barron gives most of them monologues for us to better understand them, which are hit-or-miss. Luke's is about how he enjoys being driven around in the family car, while the seat warmer is on; what on earth does that tell us about him? The sensual Ashlee (Lucy Taylor) has a scary, incredibly foul-mouthed turn about knowing how attractive she is and how someday the world will bow down to her; I can't repeat any of it. Maeve (Ellen Maddow), the oldest and least talented, thinks she has flown several times, just flapped her arms and flown, which reveals an active imagination but not much else. And Zuzu's solo is about feeling pressure, pressure, pressure, mostly from her cancer-stricken mom. What these monologues share is, they don't sound like kids; these 13-year-olds are hyperliterate, and they remember their dreams far better than you and me. Theatrical license, I guess, but all those well-turned phrases put us at a bit of a remove from real, messy, inarticulate teens and preteens.

Judging from their execution of Lee Sunday Evans' no-better-than-functional choreography (she also directed, with a keen sense of adolescent body language), they're not great dancers, either, though Amina (Dina Shihabi), whom Dance Teacher Pat usually gives the lead, does exhibit some winning moves. She also takes over and improvises when Zuzu forgets her steps and freezes at a competition, setting up all kinds of trust and self-image conflicts that lack payoff. It's that kind of sloppiness that bothers me, along with the too-in-your-face sexuality (a graphic sequence of one girl's first menstrual cycle, really, and much nudity—gratuitous, if you ask me), the awkward Our Town-like telescoping near the end, and the weird, cultlike chants the troupe uses as pep talks.

These just don't feel authentic, and they're needlessly vulgar. And there's a great deal of small talk, teen fantasies and cattiness and gossip, that doesn't lead much of anywhere. There are also pages of dialog about how Connie (Purva Bedi), the only Indian in the troupe, though cast as Gandhi—the actual Gandhi, not the spirit of him—basically doesn't move in this dance, she just sits. Then, when we finally see the dance, she moves plenty, as much as everybody else. Sloppy, I tell you.

That said, Barron and Evans do conjure up some convincing moments of BFF camaraderie, and early-teen moodiness, and the oversize emotions that wreck many a 13-year-old. If Zuzu only had more perspective, took the longer view, she'd reduce her successes and failures to manageable size and face the world sensibly and practically. But, true to Barron's author's note, she feels too strongly now and probably always will, and Ashlee's Amazonian self-regard will probably carry her far, and Maeve's honest appraisal of her meager gifts will likely propel her to an adulthood of contented mediocrity. Barron has provocative things to say about how society turns many kids' formative years into nightmares of expectations and disappointments, and how the win-or-lose dichotomy forced on them won't make them happy campers, now or later. And, aided by Arnulfo Maldonado's versatile set and Asta Bennie Hostetter's unshowy costumes, the production's just the right size. But teen bonding, peer shaming, and authority-figure bullying? You'll have a better time at Mean Girls.

Dance Nation
Through June 3
Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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