Mark St. Germain’s romantic comedy is never less than provocative, fresh, and unexpectedly moving.
Dancing Lessons, by Mark St. Germain. Directed by Julianne Boyd. Presented by the Barrington Stage Company at the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, Pittsfield, MA, through August 24.
By Helen Epstein
It’s unusual to see a world premiere in Pittsfield, Masachusetts and be left with the conviction that you’ve just seen a new classic, but that’s what I thought last night after seeing Dancing Lessons, the extraordinary romantic comedy by Mark St. Germain.
This quirky and often hilarious two-hander takes place in a Manhattan apartment building and features two memorable characters.
Senga Quinn is a bright, young, articulate dancer from the Midwest. She has performed with various dance companies and in Broadway musicals, earns enough to live alone in a comfortable studio apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and has recently been incapacitated by a cab that jumped a curb and severely injured one of her legs.
Ever Montgomery, Professor of Geosciences at the New York Institute of Technology, lives two floors above Senga and has heard about her and her accident from the talkative building superintendent. Ever is a bright, young academic, who teaches “global Warming, ecological extinction and other inevitabilities.” He is also an “Aspie” –- short for a person who has Asperger’s Syndrome — a man who lives on the very high end of the autism spectrum.
Given the current climate of political correctness, it is an act of daring to present a comedy featuring Germain’s two atypical (“challenged,” is the PC term) protagonists and give it such an honest, unsentimental production. The pay-off is 90 minutes of theater that are never less than provocative, fresh, and unexpectedly moving.
I’m tempted to describe some of the scenes and quote some of the wonderful lines Segna and Ever get to deliver but refrain so as not to attenuate the jolts of surprise St. Germain’s writing consistently delivers. Suffice it to say that in this, his ninth play at Barrington Stage, the playwright is at his best, insightful and very, very funny. His script bears out its two epigraphs. The first, from Temple Grandin, reads: “What would happen if the autism gene was eliminated from the gene pool? You would have a bunch of people standing around in a cave, chatting and socializing and not getting anything done.” The second, from comedian George Carlin reads: “Those who dance are considered insane by those who cannot hear the music.”
Barrington Stage’s Artistic Director Julianne Boyd and Mark St. Germain have been working together for years and their long collaboration is evident in this production. Boyd has assembled a team of actors and designers who have translated the script into compelling theater. From the evocative and ingenious set (realistic but with great use of video) vivid costumes, lighting and carefully calibrated music design to the casting of John Cariani as Ever and Paige Davis as Segna, this is a production that attends to every detail.
Davis is utterly persuasive as the “dancing teacher,” stirring long-ago memories of Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker. But Germain’s character is far more complex and flawed than Helen Keller’s fabled teacher. This “neurotypical” but now irreparably injured dancer has closed off much of her early emotional life and cannot bear to contemplate a future in which she cannot dance. Davis gives a sensitive, graceful and fearless performance that could only have been fostered by a similarly sensitive, graceful, and fearless director.
Cariani is nothing short of breathtaking as Ever. Disclosure: I have watched a high-functioning Aspie friend grow from childhood into adulthood over the last two decades. I was stunned and impressed by the veracity of Cariani’s performance as well as by his ability, like Davis, to be elegant, awkward, elegiac, and ignorant of social cues all at once.
This remarkable production has a remarkable history. As Boyd put it in a short introduction to the show, “It takes a village to put on a new play.” Dancing Lessons was commissioned by one Barrington Stage patron and the production was underwritten by two others, with help from the NEA and the College Internship Program, a comprehensive program preparing young adults on the autism spectrum for success – a national organization that happens to be headquartered in Pittsfield.
When you watch this idiosyncratic romantic comedy, you never suspect the many forces behind this production. It seems effortless and at all times effervescent with life. You will exit laughing, but also thinking about questions regarding human behavior that you may not have given much thought to before.
Helen Epstein is the author of Joe Papp and other books about the arts, all available at Plunkett lake Press.