The Surprise is No Surprise

Two shows I’ve seen in the past week, at opposite ends of the state but with a common link, have received glowing press and, judging from the nights I was in the house, enthusiastic audiences. Dancing Lessons, at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, is a world premiere by Mark St. Germain, a founding member of the company and its practically-resident playwright, having debuted eight new scripts there over the years. He’s also co-author of The Fabulous Lipitones, a semi-musical at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre on Cape Cod. Both productions run through this weekend.

Both these pieces are changes of pace for the playwright, whose best-known works are fictional peeks into the lives of real people: Freud’s Last Session, Camping with Henry [Ford] and Tom [Edison], Becoming Dr. Ruth. Those are dramas with heft and substance, while Lessons and Lipitones are comedies: rom- and sit-, respectively. Comedy doesn’t have to be fluff, of course, and I wouldn’t have expected that from this playwright. But from where I was sitting, both plays seemed surprisingly thin, transparently contrived and unnecessarily sentimental.

I suppose that’s to be expected, and even forgiven, of Lipitones, which was co-written by John Marcus, who cut his teeth writing for TV sitcoms (Taxi and The Cosby Show, where St. Germain also worked for a while) and who also directs this production. The script has a classic sitcom structure, much of the dialogue consists of setups for one-liners, the prevailing tone of glib flippancy regularly pauses to be heartwarming, and the ending is so perfunctory you’d think they were in a rush to wrap it up before the last commercial break.

The premise has possibilities: a middle-aged, middle-class Middlewestern barbershop quartet, poised for one last go at the national championship, suddenly becomes a three-quarters when its lead singer drops dead and they have to find a replacement quick. Enter “Bob,” a friendly fellow with a fine voice, but who’s, er, different from the others – i.e., not American and not white. He’s Baba, a turbaned Sikh and possibly an illegal immigrant.

In what bills itself as a “social comedy” there are suggestions of satire – on race, class, red/blue politics, even immigration policy, not to mention that distinctly white-American culture that is barbershop harmony. But most of the jokes are obvious and belabored, including a running gag about seniors and smartphones and one that harps on the similarity of the group’s name to a well-known cholesterol drug. Any edge the piece might have worked up is blunted by a maudlin subplot concerning an estranged wife who has come back home to die and an I.N.S. deportation scare that doesn’t go anywhere.

Photo by Michael & Suz Karchmer

The quartet of hard-working performers fill their type-cast roles more than competently – Ron Orbach as abrasive bully Phil; Wally Dunn as lonely, live-at-home pharmacist Wally; D.C. Anderson as easygoing Howard, in whose basement rec-room/bar the group rehearses; and particularly Rohan Kymal as eager, baffled Baba. They are surprisingly good barbershop singers – for actors – and the group’s renditions of straw-hat standards such as “Beautiful Dreamer” and “Bird in a Gilded Cage” are as authentic as their barber-chopped versions of “Night Fever” and “Every Breath You Take” are ludicrous.

At the end, after the obligatory final big number, the Wellfleet audience rose to their feet, applauding lustily. But I remained seated, my funnybone untickled, my heart unwarmed and my mind puzzled by an opportunity wasted.

Which is pretty much the way you would have found me at the end of Dancing Lessons, while the Pittsfield crowd stood and cheered.

This one is a two-hander in which, again, a promising premise gives way to a predictable plot arc and a saccharine payoff, including the same kind of unsurprising surprise last-minute appearance by one of the characters that gives The Fabulous Lipitones its climax.

Senga (Agnes spelled backward – don’t ask) is a Broadway dancer whose leg and knee have been crushed in an accident; Ever, her upstairs neighbor, is a college professor with Asperger syndrome. She’s depressed and self-pitying, worrying that she’ll never dance again and wondering if it’s worth living if she can’t do what she lives for. He’s the guest of honor at an upcoming awards banquet in his field (high-level geoscience) at which, for some reason, he will be expected to dance. He knocks on her door and offers her a week’s salary for a one-hour lesson.

There’s potential in the unlikely relationship of these two unalike characters – she volatile and self-absorbed, he stiff and literal, she at home in the show-biz world of illusion and imagination, he with a brain that objectively comprehends fantasy and even humor but doesn’t get the jokes. (He’s mystified by the theater, a place where “people pay to be lied to.”) But their story and the playwright’s points – she’s lying to herself, he doesn’t know how to lie – are laid out rather methodically, and when something unexpected does happen, it’s unbelievable – like when his innate phobia of being touched is overcome with a few tentative gestures, which then leads directly to sex (partial nudity alert).

The arc of the plot is as geometric as a dancer’s jetée: two opposites meet, collide, circle and ultimately, inevitably, join, having helped each other overcome stifling impediments. Nothing wrong with that structure, of course; it’s tried and true and we’ve seen it lots of times before. But precisely because we have, St. Germain’s broad-brush embrace of the form is frustrating and unsatisfying. Some of the pair’s cross-purpose banter is witty and on target, but the playwright can’t help stooping to the obvious in case we don’t get it. “I’m not sick,” Ever says. “I’m an anomaly, but I’m not alone” – a sentiment that anticipates the double-underscored last lines of the play.

The wild card here, the “high concept” if you will, is Asperger’s. To his credit, the author doesn’t sentimentalize his character, albeit within an ultimately sentimental plotline. Ever is neither an object of pity nor of ridicule, and John Cariani’s performance is comic without mockery and poignant without mawkishness. Julianne Boyd’s production isn’t helped by the imbalance between Cariani’s restrained, meticulously detailed performance and Paige Davis’s broad, labored rendering of Senga, which betrays her background as, well, a Broadway dancer.

Photo by Kevin Sprague

For me, the piece perhaps suffers most from the unavoidable comparison with another contemporary play with an “Aspy” (as Ever calls himself) at its crux: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, based on Mark Haddon’s novel, adapted by Britain’s National Theatre and coming to Broadway this fall. That show is not only far more dramatically inventive, it captures its hero’s otherworldly mindscape, social gawkiness and brutal honesty on an altogether more complex and vivid level while unrolling an eye-popping narrative that’s more engaging, moving and, yes, funnier than what St. Germain has concocted.

I almost always sit down in the theater expecting, or at least hoping, to be surprised – into laughter or thought, tears or joy. At both of these shows, I was surprised and disappointed by promising concepts that could have transcended their well-worn genres but instead chose to squander them.

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Chris Rohmann

Author: Chris Rohmann

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