Dancing Around the Subject

It's 1911, and New York City is ablaze with new ideas. Women march to vote, and radicals fight for better pay. But ballroom dancing, with all its touching and swirling and dizzying intimacy, is still something good girls don't do. Poor nice-guy meatpacker Henry Ribolow (Thomas Prior), who dreams of one day dancing for royalty, has to put an ad in the paper to find a partner.

Allan Knee's lovely Syncopation tells the story of an unlikely couple who come together in the most remarkable way. Shaped by the quiet, focused intensity that director Mark Ramont brings to most everything he does, the two-character show now running at Stages Repertory Theatre manages to fill the audience with a potent sense of urgency despite the fact that there is little chemistry burning between the lovers.

Of course, Anna Bianchi (Sofia Gomez, who sounds more like a farm girl from Kansas than an immigrant's daughter from the Lower East Side), the timid factory girl who eventually answers Henry's ad, is not supposed to be ablaze with sensuality. She is, after all, engaged to be married. As much as she says she wants to dance, she moves across the floor with a shy awkwardness, counting each step as she goes. It takes weeks for her to let him touch her. But somehow the secret clumsy dancing that Henry and Anna do every Thursday night begins to wake something daring in the prim girl. She starts listening to the "odd women" who march for women's rights near the factory where she spends long days beading fine women's clothes. She meets a man who wears a dark cape and lectures on the evils of capitalism and the virtues of free love.

Henry changes, too. The 38-year-old, never-been-married bachelor, who lives with his scolding Jewish mother, starts to follow Anna through the streets of Little Italy, where she walks with her father on Sundays. Henry says he just wants to dance, but surely there's something else on his mind. That his growing love for Anna is never quite clear is a fault in an otherwise moving production. Over and over, both characters insist that they are dance partners and nothing more, and they are so convincing that the ending comes as a bit of a surprise. The undercurrent of passion, the heart of the script, is missing.

That this production works despite this seemingly essential element is a testament to Ramont's directorial skill and Prior's enormous charisma. They make Knee's carefully crafted script glow, even without the fires of passion.

When Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris debuted in New York City in 1968, the country was in the middle of its savage adolescence. And the Belgian's boyish anthems captured much of the popular sentiment of the time: War is bad, sex is good, love conquers all. But today some of these songs sound like the stuff of high school yearbooks: "If we only have love, love that's falling like rain...We can melt all the guns...We'll have conquered all time, all space, the sun and the stars" and so forth. It's hard to take this mawkish sentiment seriously in 2003, especially when it's delivered with the earnestness of the small cast at Main Street Theater.

Despite the creaky lyrics, the show has possibilities. One of Brel's central themes -- the harrowing brutalities of war -- could be made powerfully relevant given our political climate. But for some reason director Deborah Boily (who doubles as cast member) has chosen to shape her production into an homage to Brel himself, a strategy that ends up dissolving the show's potential energy into the vapory mist of nostalgia. Boily's focus is on the past, whereas Brel seemed to be trying to change the future.

But Boily's problems don't stop with her overall take on the play. Troubled, too, are the technical aspects of the show. Dressed in ill-fitting black trousers, the cast spends much of its time stuck behind the two poles that hold up the ceiling at Main Street Theater. They move across an empty black stage, a minimalist choice that might work if Andrew Ruthven's lighting provided some visual and emotional depth. As it is, the actors spend their time in sloppy, wide puddles of light that do little to focus the scenes.

It is also difficult to understand Boily's casting choices. Her own lovely voice is muscular and tempered with a distinctive, smoky, almost heartbroken sound (thankfully she sings most of the best songs in the production). But her cast, including Bethany Daniels, Jonathan McVay and Terry Jones, can't deliver the vocal power and nuance to make the show resonate. And it makes no sense that Boily has chosen to perform Jacques Brel without microphones, especially when the cast sings so many songs facing one another in a circle.

Brel died in the '70s, as did the American innocence that made his music so intoxicating. Nowadays we need more than love to make a show.

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Lee Williams