TheaterWorks Dancing Lessons Is an Unconventional Romance

By Karen Isaacs

Dancing Lessons, the new play at TheaterWorks through March 1 is a gentle romantic comedy that mixes the predictable with the unconventional. It had its world premier at Barrington Stage Company last summer and much of the production is the same, though with one important difference.

Playwright Mark St. Germain is probably best known for his Freud's Last Session as well as others including Dr. Ruth, The God Committee, Ears on a Beatle. Several of these shows have also been done at TheaterWorks.

While the basic arc of the plot and characters remain the same, TheaterWorks artistic director Rob Ruggiero said that "strategic changes" had been made. Without comparing the two scripts side by side, I cannot point to any major differences. My assumption is that the playwright has tightened, rewritten some scenes and perhaps added or removed some specifics. It seems that some of the more "lecture" elements about autism have been reduced. The play certainly is informative about this condition but it seems more integrated than it was before.

In this play, St. Germain establishes the two characters immediately. Senga Quinn is a 30-something Broadway dancer who has sustained a serious, probably career-ending injury. She stays in her NYC apartment moping, talking to her aunt via telephone and avoiding the world.

Within minutes of the play's beginning, Ever Montgomery knocks on her door. He is awkward both physically and socially since he has Asperger's syndrome which is on the autism scale. He offers her over $2000 for one hour of dance instruction. He is accepting an award at a gala and he feels he must dance at least one time.

You don't need to be a detective to quickly get a sense of where this is headed. You wouldn't be totally wrong although St. Germain does throw a few curves at the audience.

Each reveals a great deal about themselves and Ever teaches Senga -- the odd names are part of a joke -- about autism, though he feels his condition should still be called Asperger's. Senga begins to accept the reality of her condition -- that she will probably never dance again -- and her depression lifts just a bit.

The ending is non-conclusive, but you hope that these two have a future together -- they are obviously good for each other.

What puts this production way above the average light romantic comedy is not only the subject matter, but the very real connections you develop with the characters.

Scenic designer Brian Prather has perfectly captured Senga's small, old NYC apartment. While similar to the original set, it has its unique elements. This is no glamorous building with a gigantic amount of space. It is small and cluttered. In addition, credit must be given to costume designer Sara Jean Tosetti -- who also did the original costumes and projection designer Andrew Bauer. The later does a great job at establishing the scenes that occur outside the apartment. The small TheaterWorks stage made the scenes in which Ever lectures his students and Senga researches her injury on the computer feel more cramped and awkward. The projections seem to have been limited due to the stage size.

Paige Davis has grown in the role of Senga, fully embodying the character. You see her slowly become more involved with the world -- since her injury she has been hiding -- and becoming more aware and realistic. She is ready to take the next step in her life. You also see her beginning to care about Ever from the kindness she shows him.

Andrew Benator is new to the role of Ever. If you have known someone with Asperger's or similar, you will immediately recognize his mannerisms, the way of speaking and the body language. Benator never lets any element of his characterization slip for a moment during this 90+ minute play. Yet, I will admit to having preferred the performance of John Cariani who originated the role; Benator seemed a little old (perhaps because of his baldness) and lacking a little charm.

That these two scarred and scared characters seem so ready for the future -- and we so care about them -- is a credit not only to St. Germain but also to director Julianne Boyd. She never lets the play descend to cheap laughs nor sentimentality.

Dancing Lessons is a perfect play for the Valentine season -- unsentimental and realistic but infused with romance. It runs through March 1 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl Street, Harford. For tickets call 860-527-7838 or www.theaterworkshartford.org.

This review appears in Shore Publications and zip06.com on Feb. 11. Parts of this review are drawn from my review of the world premier production last August at Barrington Stage Company that appeared 2ontheaisle.wordpress.com.


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