Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks by Richard Alfieri. Directed by Michael Marotta.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"The litmus test of a friendship."
Take a moment to imagine, if you can, what would happen when a bitchy, rude, self-important 35ish male ex-chorus boy, gay and uncomfortable about it, is thrown into a room with a giddy, self-important, Southern Baptist ministerís wife whose attitudes are self-protective, arrogant, judgmental and informed by her senior status in a condo filled with wealthy widows. Put the place where they meet inside her apartment overlooking St. Petersburg Beach in Florida where attitudes support neither of their backgrounds and add into the mix the fact that he is there to teach her how to dance, something she doesnít need to learn, a paid employee who can be dismissed at any moment for anything from insolence to stepping on her toes. That is the relationship set up by playwright Richard Alfieri in his play "Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks" currently on the boards in New Lebanon, New York at the Theater Barn.
Lily Harrison has companionship needs and they might be supplied by Michael Minetti. That is the crux of the plot here. In reality, however, it is Minetti who needs companionship and Lily is not, based on her background, his ideal new best friend. What the playwright achieves in this play, rendered in seven dance-oriented scenes, is the creation of a new relationship with strong tendrils. As they wind around their two characters and as a friendship is ultimately formed within them, those grasping vines become staked supports for both of them.
This is a delicious comedy, character driven and supported brilliantly by two superb actors and a director who understands how dance can support every human emotion. Michael Marotta does the best work of his season here this year with this play. He defines the sensitivity of the issues through gestures and physical proximities. He clarifies relationships through the tension he creates between his charactersí interpreters. Even his set change transitions carry forward the themes of the play and the idea of dance as a universal form of expression.
Ruthanne Gereghty is a feisty Lily. Stately and elegant, Lily in her hands is a woman of taste and discrimination who accepts nothing at face value, even when the lines would have us believe she does exactly that. Gereghty manages with a look or a small gesture to show us that there is something behind the line, something working against the spoken word in her character. She dances divinely, with a grace and a charm that makes even the modest Frug or Monkey seem perfectly right for her. The actress has a sweet voice with an edge. She does modest anger, immodest humor and the occasional four-letter word with equal grace and charm. In the second act when Lily reveals more truths about her family life than we might expect to hear, Gereghty plays with a restraint that allows the audience to react to bad news rather than taking it all on herself and depriving the audience of its own response. It is a truly lovely performance.
Matthew Daly continues his summer of unusual characters with Michael. This is an actor to watch, obviously, as he transitions from overly visual chorus boy type to underplayed gentleman to charmer to madman to human with a heart. The role allows him to use the talents he has displayed in three successive musicals at the Barn, all in one character. His dark good looks are an asset here. He overplays the gayness of his character to the extreme required, then pulls back into the dancer who gave up a career to care for an ailing mother with warmth and charm.. Daly is one of those Theater Barn actors who always seem to be better than expected in a summer stock company. He is proving his professionalism in this play allowing himself to be broad and comic while bringing out the closed-in, closeted human being within, a man who uses funny lines to hide the true emotions that are playing out somewhere else, in some other world of his own creation.
Physically this is one of Jonathan Knipscherís best designed shows. With Michelle Blanchard assistance the costumes for the seven scenes of this play tell us almost as much about Lily as her words and actions. They are perfect. Michaelís costume choices are equally well thought out and the productionís sheen is based as much on their looks for each dance as on their emotional outbursts.
Abe Phelps and Michael Marotta have conceived a Florida condo with style. Their vision of Lily and her home choices is largely Florida Room with a heavy emphasis on pink. It works for the character, allowing her costumes to alter our image of her drawn from her environment. This is clearly a clever device created by the director.
Robert Eberleís lighting was a bit heavy on the red, but his transitions from emotion to dance to scene climax were always fascinating and almost filmic in a 1960's Joshua Logan way.
Applause should also go to Emily James Durning for her lovely set change transitions.
See this one before it closes. Itís an unusual evening that makes you laugh, allows you a single, furtive tear, and lets you enjoy the art of social dancing taken to its dramatic brilliance.
Michael and Lily (Matthew Daly and Ruthanne Gereghty) "Before"; photo supplied
Michael and Lily in the throes of the Viennese Waltz, "after"; photo supplied
Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks play Friday, Saturday and Sunday through September 16 at The Theater Barn on Route 20 in New Lebanon, NY. For information and tickets call 518-794-8989.