Face the Music and Dance -- “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks”

Special to the Shoreline Times

By Brooks Appelbaum

The Ivoryton Playhouse may not have made the strongest choice in mounting Richard Alfieri’s formulaic “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks,” which runs through May 22nd. However, Alfieri is very lucky in having director Sasha Bratt and his endearing team of actors, Valerie Stack Dodge (Lily Harrison) and Michael Iannucci (Michael Minnetti) infuse his plot and dialogue with such sincerity, heart, and warmth.

The set-up is simple: Lily, a wealthy woman-of-a-certain age (an age she chooses to soft-pedal) living in a St. Petersburg, Florida condo, has hired an instructor from “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks” to teach her ballroom dances plus something her much younger teacher, Michael, calls “contemporary dance moves,” performed to Beach Boys surfin’ tunes. Lily is originally from South Carolina and a Baptist preacher’s wife; she also taught English for many years and has a gentle, elegant, but decidedly and un-apologetically old-fashioned schoolmarm manner.

Michael, in contrast, proudly owns what he describes as a loud, Italian heritage; was a chorus boy in New York for (possibly too) many years, and has returned to Florida for reasons not to be revealed here. Pardon the twisted pun, but he is now a large fish out of water for more reasons than one. Moreover, his lack of a verbal filter sets up the perfect mismatch for Lily. Let the conflict begin!

And indeed, these two very different people find ways to seriously aggravate one another in each of the six scenes, which requires some patience from the audience. Naturally, though, as Lily and Michael fight and make up (and dance a bit in between), they find themselves revealing more and more about their loneliness, their private tragedies, and their growing affection.

Though technically a two-hander, Alfieri has cleverly used the condo structure and the telephone to provide two other characters, both of whom add interest to the plot though we never see them. Lily’s neighbor, Ida, punctuates each evening of lessons with a phone call complaining about the noise; and Ida’s son, Robert, contributes to the charm of the play’s final moments.

However, the play’s success belongs to Bratt and his terrifically skillful and sincere leading man and woman. Dodge nails the Southern accent -- so often shrill or overdone by other actors and actresses -- with soft cadences that accurately capture her birthplace and her refined, genteel essence. Her Lily is tall, naturally graceful, and beautiful in the way of a woman who has never thought of herself as a beauty: indeed, in one of Alfieri’s occasional bon mots, she tells Michael she owes her face to Max Factor. Dodge is also equally believable in anger, annoyance, embarrassment, and melting tenderness. She doesn’t make a single false move.

Iannucci is cast against type as Michael, but he captures Michael’s essence all the same. He and Bratt have created a version of this character that, to their credit, is neither a cuddlesome sweetheart nor a tall, dark, handsome, if somewhat tattered, guy. Iannucci’s performance takes getting used to, but for just that reason, he raises the script’s stakes and makes the predictable story less so.  Michael’s desperately needs this job, but he’s not pathetic about this, and his yelling (whether in excitement or frustration) puts one in mind of the clown’s painted-on smile. He whirls about the stage, uneasy unless actually dancing.  And underneath his candor bordering on presumption, he is fiercely self-protective. The script needs a wildcard, and Iannucci plays it.

While the set (William Russell Stark) doesn’t quite capture Lily’s wealth or convey her personality, Lisa Bebey’s costumes, especially for Lily, are superb. The set changes, when I saw the show, dragged unnecessarily, but surely that will be adjusted during the run.

When you come to “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks,” leave your sensible footwear at the door and put on your dancing shoes. If you let them, Doge and Iannucci will, at least for an hour or so, waltz away with your heart.

For tickets or more information call the Ivoryton Playhouse Box Office at 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.

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