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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Dancing Lessons

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— Mary Temple Grandin, a famous example of someone who overcame the loneliness of an autistic childhood to became an expert on animal science, a college professor, author and autism activist.

You should look like you're enjoying it. . . pretend it's dancing, not waterboarding —Senga during the dance lesson that Ever has asked her for to prepare him for a professional award he's being given that will involve dancing and thus challenge his difficulties of his aversion to physical contact.

Dancing Lessons

Paige Davis and John Cariani (Photo credit: Kevin Sprague)
I'm not being a spoiler when I tell you that Ever will not only learn to dance but like it. Nor is it likely to be much of a surprise to know that this brilliant but awkward young man and his at first unwilling dance teacher will connect romantically.

But then surprise is not what Mark St. Germain's new romantic comedy drama is about. The pleasure of this unusual new 2-hander, the playwright's 9th world premiere at Barrington Stage, comes from getting caught up in its charm and poignancy. And charming and poignant Dancing Lessons definitely is — not to mention funny and informative. It's also beautifully staged and acted. John Cariani's portrayal of a young man coping with high functioning Asperger's Syndrome giving Barrington Stage a double win for most memorable performances of the 2014 Berkshire theater season.

Interestingly, Mark Dold created the other unforgettable portrait in the last play on the same stage. And while Alan Turing, the central character of Breaking the Code was never identified as part of the autism spectrum, Dold's characterization showed several similarities more specifically and clearly identified in Dancing Lessons which, gives both these terrific productions a sense of synergy.

Unlike the well-known historical figures who populated St. Germain's big two-character hit, Freud's Last Session (Barrington Stage Review & New York production review) Ever and Senga are fictional characters. He has achieved a distinguished career as a college professor despite suffering from some socially crippling symptoms associated with Asperger's Syndrome. Her career as a dancer has been short circuited, possibly permanently, by an accident.

Senga (an unsual version of an ordinary name because of the name being spelled wrong side around on her birth certificate) is not autistic. However, her accident will force her to deal with other long-standing issues, as the award ceremony at which Ever is being honored has forced him to seek her help in dealing with his phobia about close physical contact.

While the plot is driven by the Asperger's afflicted young man, the playwright has counter-balanced it to good effect with the dancer's story. Fortunately Broadway dancer Paige Davis, a Broadway dancer and host of the popular Trading Spaces TV series, inhabits the part with believable nuance. We identify with her curmudgeonly resistance to a man who at first seems the kind of neighbor we could all do without. His offer pay her $2053 for one dance lesson, based on his typically thorough research on anything he undertakes, certainly helps. But it's the wit and charm beneath that oddball surface to which she succumbs, as we do with her. Watching this dancing lesson blossom into something deeper and more meaningful for both, makes for a hilarious and touching 95 minutes.

Mr. St. Germain has peppered his script with wonderfully sharp and funny dialogue, but not at the expense of the heart- clutching aspects of the story. While most of the laugh lines are courtesy of Ever's autistic tendencies, there's nothing cartoonish about him. Even the fumble and stumble sexual encounter is touchingly real and moving. St. Germain has clearly done his research on the many faces and variations of high functioning autism. This is integral to Ever's comments but never allowed to smack of lecturing.

While a you may wonder why a play with just two actors isn't premiering on Barrington's smaller stage (the one named for St. Germain), the Main Stage is in no way too big. Director Boyd Boyd brought out the delicacy of a play with just two actors on stage and yet enlisted her designers to create a rich, versatile setting to give this play the send-off it deserves.

James J. Fenton's unit set focuses on Senga's Manhattan apartment in which most of the action takes place. But, also accommodates several detours to Ever's apartment, a lecture hall in the New York Institute of Technology where he teaches and the the Millenium Hotel Ballroom for a satisfyingly romantic yet realistic conclusion. Those detours are greatly enhanced by Andrew Bauer's projections, Mary Louise Geiger's lighting and Christine O'Grady's choreography. Kudos also to Sara Jean Tosetti's characterizing costumes.

Dancing Lessons's potential for a New York production is likely to be helped or hindered by a high profile London import set to open on Broadway. That Olivier award winning play was adapted from an internationally best-selling novel, The Curious Incident of a Dog at Nightime is about a teen aged boy with behavior Asperger's behavior patterns. ( Our London Critic's Review).

Whatever happens, you'd be well-advised to take advantage of the chance to see this enjoyable new play while you can.
Dancing Lessons by Mark St. Germain
Directed by Julianne Boyd
Cast: John Cariani (Ever Montgomery) & Paige Davis (Senga Quinn)
Choreography: Christine O'Grady
Scenic Design: James Fenton
Costume Design: Sara Jean Tosetti
Lighting Design: Mary Louise Geiger
Projection Design: Andrew Bauer
Sound Design: Will Pickens
Stage Manager: Renee Lutz
Running Time: 95 minutes, no intermission
Barrington Stage Company's Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, 30 Union Street, Pittsfield, MA
From 8/07/14; opening 8/13/14; closing 8/24/14
Tues/Wed at 7pm; Thurs-Sat at 8pm; Sun at 5pm; Wed/Fri matinees at 2pm (excluding Aug. 8 & 13). Special Autism-Friendly Performance Saturday, August 16 @ 2pm
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 8/13/14 press Opening
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