BWW Reviews: Enthralling DANCING LESSONS at Barrington Stage Co.
There have been many famous couples on stage, from Shakespeare's ROMEO AND JULIET to Neil Simon's Oscar and Felix, but neither comes close to matching the oddly named couple Ever and Senga in DANCING LESSONS. Now playing in the Berkshires on the Boyd-Quinson stage of Barrington Stage Company, it pairs John Cariani as Ever, a brilliantly functioning man with Asperger's and Paige Davis as Senga, a dancer sidelined by a serious injury.
He needs dancing lessons to become more socially adept. She lives in denial of the bleak reality of her injury. They meet. They clash. They start talking. Things develop.
What starts out as two neighbors in the Upper West Side meeting for the first time soon develops into a sort of mutual curiosity, and in the hands of playwright Mark St. Germain, becomes a romantic comedy. Of sorts. But it is so liberally sprinkled with insights into the spectrum of autism it seems more a theatrical documentary. We soon become enthralled by the ability of someone with Aspberger's to be both a fully functioning Professor of Geosciences yet totally lost when it comes to physical relationships with a woman. As the character Ever, John Cariani is simply brilliant. Cariani is a New England original in the spirit of Sam Shepard, a multi-tasking actor who is also a successful playwright. HIs ALMOST, MAINE is a New England favorite, His portrayal of Asperger's, with hands flat on his thighs and terror in his eyes, is masterful, even as he loosens up enough to bravely pursue the DANCING LESSONS he needs for an upcoming award dinner that he will be attending. He is to be the guest of honor.
Paige Davis, as the injured Senga also focuses on the physical elements of her injured character, restrained by a full length leg brace that has reduced her dancer's grace of movement to an awkward wobble. Her injury (from an auto accident) has grounded her life to waiting for a cure. She passes the time on her sofa, drinking, avoiding contact with others and deceiving herself about a recovery. Her isolation is interruped when Ever arrives. Anxious to get rid of him at first, she warms to his eccentric behavior. Davis delivers a delightfully droll performance we watch her character make the gradual shifts from annoyance to compassion and finally to wonder and fascination. as the play unwinds.
Director Julianne Boyd has always found the key to relationships in the humor that takes place between two people, and in DANCING LESSONS and long time associate artist Mark St. Germain, she has a goldmine.
He has given her two awkward characters, both of whom are in constant danger of toppling, and she has capitalized on the possibilities. She molds the two characters as they slowly get to know and trust each other. In one sequence where the dancer encourages him to shake hands, the sequence is both hilarious and spellbinding. This is, after all, something he has been unable to do without sensory overload, and watching the pair work out the difficulties brings great heart and humanity to the simplest of actions.
With a first rate script - the finest that Mark St. Germain has ever penned - and a detail-oriented director, DANCING LESSONS goes beyond the conventions of a romantic comedy to an enthralling evening in which we come to understand the nature of Aspergers's more fully, and realize that even we "neuro-typicals" have some pretty serious limitations. The character Ever has to spend much of his time parsing the meaning and context of everything people around him do. But sometimes the self-deceptions and avoidance of truths that "normal" people engage is even more damaging than the tightly focused inquiries of someone whose neurons have a different path and game plan.
From a medical standpoint, Asperger's, "is an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that is characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. It differs from other autism spectrum disorders by its relative preservation of linguistic and cognitive development. " It was eliminated as a diagnosis in 2013 when it became an entry on the autism spectrum. As Ever says in DANCING LESSONS: "They say it's elitist and want to call all of us autistic, but we never voted ,so I say I have Asperger's. I'm a rebel that way."
As an evening of theatre, DANCING LESSONS is totally absorbing, from its brilliantly conceived story to its first rate acting. The set by James J. Fenton looks pretty standard, but as the play unfolds, the projections of Andrew Bauer add immensely to the depth of the storytelling. This is the eighth Mark St. Germain world premiere the company has staged - before this came DR. RUTH, ALL THE WAY and FREUD'S LAST SESSION - and his DANCING LESSONS is a complete change of pace. Previous plays have often had famous people at their core, but here it is time to focus on the less famous, and if you see it, you will never forget them.
Barrington Stage Company presents Dancing Lessons by Mark St. Germain, Directed by Julianne Boyd, Choreography by Christine O'Grady, Scenic Designer -James J. Fenton; Costume Designer - Sara Jean Tosetti; Lighting Designer - Mary Louise Geiger; Projection Designer - Andrew Bauer; Sound Designer - Will Pickens; Production Stage Manager - Renee Lutz; Cating - Pat McCorkle, CSA.
Cast: Ever - John Cariani; Senga - Paige Davis; August 7-24, 2014. 95 minutes with no intermission. At the Boyd Quinson main stage of Barrington Stage Company, Union Street, Pittsfield, MA. BarringtonStageCo.org 413.236.8888
Photo by Kevin Sprague.