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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
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
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
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
(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.
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
It was only in retrospect and when Knee got away from his
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
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
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
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,"
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
Jess Goldstein (costumes), Dan Kotlowitz (lights), and Fabian Obispo
Knee is up front about identifying with his character Henry, and
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
as well as "Sholom Alechem Lives" and "Second Avenue
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
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
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
— Simon Saltzman
Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Opening night. $40. Wednesday,
January 12, 7 p.m.
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