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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
for life at its most dynamic. And playwright and dance aficionado
Allan Knee exploits both qualities in his new play
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
even as it cramps its occupants’ horizons — contributes to a
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
Sunday, February 6. "Syncopation" opens Off-Broadway in
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
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
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
day. A factory girl who spends 12 hours a day beading women’s
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,
above all to the words "dreams and longings," and the
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
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.
isn’t about swimming, Anna, this is about us," is his oblique
Chandler is also enchanting in his scenes with a succession of
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
is tremendously persuasive as Anna. Her moments of earnest
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
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
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
of title. Syncopation disrupts the regular meter of a tune by
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
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
Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. $26 to $38. Show continues
to Sunday, February 6.
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