Corrections or additions?

Author: Simon Saltzman. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on January

12, 2000. All rights reserved.

`Syncopation:’ In Step

They say that timing in life is everything. For

playwright

Allan Knee, timing not only plays an important part in his new play

"Syncopation" but in the good fortune that brought it to the

stage of not one but two major regional theaters, back to back.

As part of a growing trend of collaborative productions, the George

Street Playhouse in New Brunswick co-produced "Syncopation"

with Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Connecticut, where it just

completed

its world premiere. "Syncopation" opens at George Street this

Wednesday, January 12, at 7 p.m.

In an era when Broadway seems to be inhospitable to new plays, Knee

has to be feeling a millennium high by having his play chosen as

George

Street’s first play of the new century. "Syncopation" also

continues the artistic sharing between George Street and Long Wharf

that began this season with Anne Meara’s "Down the Garden

Path"

(now moved to the Long Wharf).

The New York born and raised playwright, whose most successful play,

"Shmulnik’s Waltz," enjoyed an extended run at the Jewish

Repertory Theater in the early 1990s, now is geared for another hit.

Knee began to write the play a couple of years ago at a 42nd Street

writers’ workshop. "There was something about an ugly little room

of a fifth floor walk-up that intrigued me," Knee recalls.

"That

room reminded me of the studio that my wild and crazy aunt would bring

me to study tap and ballroom dancing when I was a youth."

Knee grew up on the Upper West Side in the 1950s. Unlike other writers

who nostalgically cherish their formative years, Knee thinks of the

’50s of his youth as a "rigid, stultifying and conformist

time."

It was only in retrospect and when Knee got away from his

"crazy"

family that he began to compare his family with other Jewish families,

the gatherings, the vitality, the love, and the ethnic experience

that he missed growing up.

Knee recalls how Jewish family life had a low profile in the ’50s

where "every kid wanted to look like a prep-school kid, and no

one betrayed their ethnicity."

On the positive side, frequent visits with his parents to the still

prospering Yiddish theater on the Lower East Side were memorable.

"When I was a kid," Knee recalls, "I liked to think up

titles, write them down on note cards, and put them in a little box.

I couldn’t write a play, but I would walk down the street and dream

up dramatic stories to go with the titles. I didn’t write a

full-length

play until I went to Yale Drama School." Knee, whose biography

lists nine plays, including two adaptations ("Around the World

in Eighty Days" and "The Prince and the Pauper"), recently

received the Richard Rodgers Musical Theater Award for the book of

"Little Women" (1998), a show that Knee feels has Broadway

potential.

For someone who insists that he wasn’t a good student,

an athlete, or popular, Knee says that "dancing was the one thing

that I could do well." Knee’s passion for dancing followed him

into his teen years. He buried it totally until he met a young actor,

Michele Gutman, at the writers’ workshop. Gutman triggered in him

the idea to begin writing a play about dance. Meeting every couple

of weeks as a new scene was written, Knee and Gutman would act the

roles of two people who want to be ballroom dancers.

Eventually Knee felt the time was right to have a public reading.

Two-and-a-half years ago "Syncopation" was given a series

of public readings at the workshop, and subsequently at the John Harms

Theater in Teaneck, as part of a new play reading series presented

by Playwrights Theater of New Jersey in Madison. Based on audience

response, Knee felt he was on to something. Sending the script to

Mark Nelson, who was then directing "June Moon" Off-Broadway

(the same production that played at McCarter) proved providential

for Knee. Although Nelson said he would rather act in it than direct

it, he offered to send the play to various playhouses, including

George

Street, where artistic director David Saint was immediately interested

in a production. Saint suggested to Long Wharf’s artistic director

Doug Hughes that "Syncopation" could be part of the theaters’

two-play co-production deal.

Set in New York in 1911 and 1912, "Syncopation" is at its

core about human potential and not giving up, an attitude that Knee

says is very close to his heart. The era is important to Knee because

it was a time when his parents were born, and a time for dreams and

yearning, a time someone labeled "a revolution of expression,"

Knee says.

Romance and dramatic twists occur when Henry, a single middle-aged

meat-packer who loves ballroom dancing, rents an empty room on the

Lower East Side to practice, and places an ad for a partner. That

Anna turns out to be half his age and engaged to be married might

seem a deterrent to their goal to work as a team and become exhibition

ballroom dancers, but that’s only the half of it.

In the two-character play, David Chandler, who appeared at George

Street in "The Seagull," plays Henry. Lorca Simons, who played

opposite Uta Hagen in "Collected Stories," both Off-Broadway

and at George Street, plays Anna. The creative team includes Willie

Rosario (choreographer), Jeffrey Lunden (composer), Judy Gailen

(sets),

Jess Goldstein (costumes), Dan Kotlowitz (lights), and Fabian Obispo

(sound).

Knee is up front about identifying with his character Henry, and

believes

in the play’s theme: the importance of pursuing the thing you feel

most passionately about. We might even presume that those icons of

ballroom dancing in the early 1920s, Vernon and Irene Castle, may

have spurred Henry on to pursue his romantic notions. Dramatizing

the Jewish experience in America has always been at the forefront

of Knee’s writing, as with his biggest success "Shmulnik’s

Waltz,"

as well as "Sholom Alechem Lives" and "Second Avenue

Rag."

It was with "Second Avenue Rag," produced Off-Broadway in

1980, that Knee felt he came out of the closet as a Jew. The play

was not a success and the experience with the director, he recalls,

caused him a lot of emotional pain. Knee subsequently did "a lot

of soul searching."

With unhappy memories of Bronx Science High School ("too

competitive

for me"), Knee graduated from the University of Michigan in the

1960s, and did graduate work at the Yale Drama School, where he wrote

his first play. Knee says he has made a "good but not great"

living writing plays, particularly adaptations of famous books for

the well-known children’s theater Theaterworks/USA. His adaptation

of "The Scarlet Letter" appeared on television.

If the feeling of being betrayed by actors, directors, and producers

is part of Knee’s past, as it must be for many playwrights over the

long haul, he stresses how "blessed" he is with Long Wharf

director Greg Leaming. In what Knee describes as a nervous moment

and not one immediately "simpatico," he met Leaming for the

first time just before rehearsals started. Knee admits that he tends

to "lose faith" during the rehearsal process and as a

"closet

actor" he grows impatient with the actors’ process. "I look

up there and say to myself, I don’t know what this is."

Only after the curtain fell on opening night in New Haven did Knee

see that what he hoped for — the successful integration of dance

and drama — had been accomplished.

"Syncopation" seems right in step at a time when theater is

embracing dance as a dramatic propellant as never before (the most

recent example, "Contact"). Yet "Syncopation" is not

a musical, even as it uses dance as an equal partner in its drama

about two people learning to be partners. Knee says he sees life as

"a dance in which we learn to live with and love the partner we

are with." Although Knee says he has no partner in his life at

this time, we agree that the timing must be right in all

circumstances.

— Simon Saltzman

Syncopation, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston

Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Opening night. $40. Wednesday,

January 12, 7 p.m.


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