Corrections or additions?

Critic: Nicole Plett. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on January

19, 2000. All rights reserved.

Review: `Syncopation’ at George Street

Ballroom dancing offers us a muscular and sensual

metaphor

for life at its most dynamic. And playwright and dance aficionado

Allan Knee exploits both qualities in his new play

"Syncopation."

Focusing on a pair of mismatched dreamers at the turn of the 20th

century, Knee chooses dance as a means to open our eyes to questions

of struggle, style, and character. But the drama’s constricted setting

— a tawdry, sixth-floor tenement room that cramps the dance

rehearsals

even as it cramps its occupants’ horizons — contributes to a

cautious

tone. "Syncopation" is a sweet Valentine to romantic love

that both addresses and evades most of our "big questions."

David Chandler and Lorca Simons turn in stellar performances as they

two-step their way through the world premiere of "Syncopation"

at George Street Playhouse, in a co-production with the Long Wharf

Theater, New Haven. Greg Leaming directs the premiere that plays

through

Sunday, February 6. "Syncopation" opens Off-Broadway in

mid-February.

Set over the course of 18 months, beginning in 1911, on New York’s

Lower East Side, "Syncopation" chronicles a unique test of

patience between Henry, a mercurial, slightly madcap, restless Jew

approaching middle age, and Anna, a beautiful young Italian woman.

Perched on the edge of adulthood, Anna is a potential swan who, caught

in the maelstrom of contemporary social and political upheaval, feels

as awkward as an ugly duckling. Henry, on the other hand, has seen

adulthood and radical politics, too, and is not particularly impressed

with either. Their story is told chronologically, largely through

pithy monologues aimed at the audience. Over the course of this

pas

de deux, each character traverses a bumpy road from where they

are physically and psychically to where they’d like to be.

"I may not look like a dancer," Henry tells Anna at their

first meeting. "I may not dance like a dancer. But I’m here to

dance." Still single, Henry works as a meat packer by day while

dreaming of ballroom dancing by night. Dreams and dancing give Henry

pleasure, but we soon see that his dreams are dreams indeed. With

a room, a hand-cranked phonograph, and a series of newspaper ads as

his only tools, he employs nothing so straightforward as a course

of ballroom dancing lessons.

Anna, the young Italian immigrant in her early 20s, is even less

clearly

directed. A straitlaced Catholic girl, she’s engaged to be married

to an Italian dry goods merchant, but yet can’t manage to name a

wedding

day. A factory girl who spends 12 hours a day beading women’s

garments,

she confesses to having little imagination or courage. But she’s also

a character in whom the seeds of change won’t be denied. By the time

she answers Henry’s ad, she has been ruminating over them for weeks.

Now she’s drawn to the persuasive tone of his newspaper prose,

succumbing

above all to the words "dreams and longings," and the

suggestion

that they may "dance for royalty."

Each character also lives in the shadow of a parent. For Anna it’s

her conventional father, patiently awaiting her wedding day, for which

he’ll spare no expense. More comical are Henry’s laments about life

with his mother. It’s easy to see why he rented a room of his own.

Not only does his mother claim to be hanging onto life "by a

thread,"

but persists in rearranging the household furnishings — before

she, too, makes an unexpected bid for happiness.

In the role of Henry, one of David Chandler’s most endearing features

is the way that — on receiving good news of any kind — he

visibly jumps for joy, rising off the floor in a straight, heavenward

trajectory. The first time we see this is when Anna consents to their

first 30-minute dance practice. In Act II he jumps for joy when Anna

agrees to join his flawed plan for a publicity stunt aboard a Hudson

River boat. ("Can you swim?" she asks Henry reasonably.

"This

isn’t about swimming, Anna, this is about us," is his oblique

reply.)

Chandler is also enchanting in his scenes with a succession of

imaginary

women, each of whom climbs six floors to audition to become Henry’s

partner. From the Norwegian who does not know her left foot from her

right, to the hammering Irish clog dancer, and the sensuous Cuban

who drives Henry into oblivion, each woman is visibly conjured out

of thin air.

Lorca Simons, previously seen at George Street as the

young literary protege opposite Uta Hagen in "Collected

Stories,"

is tremendously persuasive as Anna. Her moments of earnest

introspection,

and her wonderful mobile face that can light up the stage, make us

believe in Anna. "The spontaneous woman can only be spontaneous

when she knows exactly what she’s doing," Anna observes

guilelessly,

summing up her persistently conflicted conduct.

Both Henry and Anna remark on the "revolution of expression"

going on all around them, invoking the names of Stravinsky, Satie,

and Mahler. To these one could readily add such names as Isadora

Duncan,

Michel Fokine, Alfred Stieglitz, and James Joyce.

"The world is telling us every day there are no limits," Anna

observes,as she moves to explore an urban clique of radical women

and to experiment with a charismatic exponent of free love. Playwright

Knee gives us additional clues to his characters’ dilemma in his

choice

of title. Syncopation disrupts the regular meter of a tune by

stressing

the weaker beat — it is, of course, the unmistakable signature

of America’s homegrown African-American blues.

"No prescribed steps tonight," the increasingly courageous

Anna announces late in the play, propelling the pair into their most

delightful duo of the evening, a mad romp of gesture and display.

Costume designer Jess Goldstein has provided Simons with a series

of dresses, from the dowdy to the dazzling, each of which shows off

both the character’s line of movement and her slowly emerging

self-confidence.

Completing the multi-media world of "Syncopation" is a musical

score by Jeffrey Lunden that emanates from the gramophone, ranging

across an entire dance landscape, from waltz and fox-trot to polka

and a haughty tango. Choreographer Willie Rosary, in turn, gives the

characters their lexicon of steps, starting with the most tentative

stumbles and leading seamlessly to a suitably grand finale.

— Nicole Plett

Syncopation, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston

Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. $26 to $38. Show continues

to Sunday, February 6.


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