PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The estimable theater critic Walter Kerr, writing of Neil Simon’s less-than-praiseworthy opus “The Star Spangled Girl,” once said, “... Simon hasn’t had an idea for a play this season, but he’s gone ahead and written one anyway.”
This quip popped into my head after seeing Barrington Stage’s world premiere of Mark St. Germain’s new play “Dancing Lessons,” because behind the sneer lies the truth — even a very gifted playwright writes an uninspired play every now and again.
In all fairness, St. Germain did have ideas for this play — I’m sure Simon did, too — just not very fresh ones.
To those theater-goers who long for the “golden” days of the 1960s when shows like “Sunday in New York,” “Any Wednesday,” “A Thousand Clowns” and “The Owl and the Pussycat” titillated and tickled audiences with sexual tension and pithy sparring between polar opposites who discover — before the final curtain falls — what they have been looking for is right there in front of them. If you love that, grab a ticket and enjoy the nostalgia. But be warned the “rom-com” has been infused with the dreaded television device of the “very special episode” treatment. Not a great mix, not here anyway.
WHERE: Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, Mass.
WHEN: Through Aug. 24
HOW MUCH: $60-$20
MORE INFO: 413-236-8888, www.barringtonstageco.org
Our very special story takes place in New York City where 30-something Broadway dancer Senga (Paige Davis) lies depressed on her couch, trapped in anger and a leg brace, denying the fact that her career may be over after a tangle with an out-of-control taxi cab.
Two flights up in her building, a young professor of Geosciences, Ever Montgomery (John Cariani), screws up the courage to descend the staircase to knock on her door to ask for her help. He needs dancing lessons for a formal event. Ever is young and affable. Senga is despondent and surly. His baggage? He has high-functioning autism (Aspererger’s Syndrome). Her baggage? Herself.
Will they be able to unclench the grip on their own instability, emotionally grow and help each other heal? I spoil nothing by confirming, yes. This is known from the outset. That’s one of the signatures of romantic comedy — it’s all out there and obvious to everyone — except the two characters. The music swells, the kids kiss (and here they dance), the curtain falls, and, pow! Happily ever after.
St. Germain’s script follows the format to the letter and peppers the script with a couple of requisite chuckles. Yet the evening lands odd and manipulative. This romantic comedy reboot now has an extra ingredient. In addition to the fluff, the audience has to have a “lesson.” It’s now issue-driven “rom-com.” I am not going to get into the rationale of this move, nor the obvious importance of the issue, but as a piece of drama, it feels forced and manipulative. Theater can do many things — enlighten, inform, entertain. What it should avoid is telling you how to feel instead of making you feel. And there is this script’s misstep.
Davis may be doing her best, but Cariani’s performance is hard to match. Committing himself completely to the character and story, every moment is honest, from Ever’s flashpoint smiles to the rapid-fire questions that he already knows the answers to. Cariani’s immersion is quite astonishing and faultless. It’s one of the very few parts of this production that doesn’t crunch stale. It’s a wonderful performance that is fresh and free from preservatives.