Nonetheless, something of the persona we know—not just the nose and
the haircut—is still there. Four years ago in Ron Hutchinson’s Moonlight and Magnolias, Thompson
gave us a David O. Selznick who looked nothing at all like the
legendary movie mogul, a pudgy man with a crown of white curls. But
Thompson-Selznick’s big speech on the demands and rewards of popular art
was dynamite and won him a much-deserved award from the Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) Academy.
For Six Dance Lessons Thompson never affects a Danny Aiello
accent (thankfully), and his character’s coarse insults will make some
longtime fans blanch. No matter. Thompson’s Minetti is a goad who drives
the action. He’s not only giving dance lessons, he’s getting a
performer to face up to some honest questions about why she is there.
It’s not really so far from being an artistic director.
The scene is a comfortable condo in St. Petersberg Beach, Fla., in
the spring of 2003. Brian Howard’s set, cleanly lighted by Shawn Boyle,
tells us these are upmarket digs, if a bit on the sterile side. At his
entrance, Thompson’s Minetti grumbles that high-rises like this one have
blocked the view of the water for the hoi polloi. Minetti,
we learn quickly, is a local boy who had gone off to Broadway to become
a dancer, and with that ended has come home. His current occupation
feels like a fall from grace, but he needs the money, as he pointedly
That’s only the beginning of tension with the client-student. Lily
Harrison (Mary Poindexter Williams), a chicly dressed youthful senior,
turns out to be the wife of a Southern Baptist minister who has settled
in affluent retirement in St. Petersburg. She’s not as quick as we are
in discerning other differences between herself and Minetti, as when she
assumes he has a wife. Director Bill Kincaid and Thompson handle this
moment subtly, with only a half-beat’s hesitation at the word “wife,”
and at that the character has his back to the audience. Later Minetti
barks sarcastically that if he was a single male and a former
professional chorus boy, what did she expect?
Thompson never gives Minetti any gay mannerisms or expressions, but
he comes on with the hard edge of a demonstrator from Act-Up, ready to
do battle with the Rev. Pat Robertson or the ideologues from the Family
Research Council. Then in the first of many reversals, Lily turns out to
be accepting his sexuality and wants to get on with the lessons.
Minetti’s bogeys are out there, not on stage.
Six Dance Lessons, however, is a comedy, not a polemic,
and the differences between the characters are trampolines for
launching gags. Playwright Alfieri, a Yale Drama graduate with
television experience, has packed both characters’ lines with so much
pointed humor that we rarely go two minutes without some laughter, much
of it robust. After indulging in some insult humor laced with street
language, Minetti cautions Lily: “I just got off on the wrong foot.”
Lily responds, “Something tells me you’ve been on that foot all week.”
Here’s another sample. Lily: “Despite what my AARP Newsletter says, the world belongs to the young.” Minetti: “No, we’re just renting it.”
The prevalence of verbal humor suggests a kind of contrivance:
nobody’s so quick or unrelenting in life, which in turn invites a
comparison with the gagmeister himself, Neil Simon. Alfieri, as we soon
see, is more ambitious and often bumps up against the limits of taste.
After Lily speaks of her troublesome marriage to the minister, Minetti
quips, “That’s what you get when you marry outside your gender.”
Bit by bit we come to realize there is a deeper subtext that the
laughter, even when biting, has been giving us. Lily and Minetti come to
recognize each other’s pain. After a caustic comment she says, “I
didn’t mean it.” He responds, “You meant it. You just didn’t mean to say it.”
And as they pay more attention to one another, they notice that their
cover stories don’t quite add up. Lily is not just a quick study, she
appears to know the dance steps already.
Many imperceptive out-of-town critics have dismissed Six Dance Lessons as
a sitcom with a sharp bite, but audiences have been ahead of them.
After its 2003 opening in Los Angeles, the show has been translated into
a dozen languages, becoming a hit in such far-flung cities at Sydney,
Helsinki and Tel-Aviv. It has also drawn top performers, including David
Hyde Pierce and Uta Hagen in Los Angeles, Mark Hamill and Polly Bergen
in New York City, and Billy Zane and Claire Bloom in London.
Some things are missing from the analysis here, as the reader may
have guessed, and they are secrets both characters reveal as the action
unfolds. Regardless of whether confession is really good for the soul,
it does supply the kind of glue that ensures a bond between characters.
Rather than be compared with a Simon laugh-fest, Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks feels more like a distant cousin of Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy. In
both comedies, two characters, one of them an acerbic older woman,
arise from seemingly incompatible backgrounds and begin their
relationship with hostility. They come together as only a man and a
woman can, dancing in each other’s arms, without any suggestion of
romance or sex.
While Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks looks like a star turn for Thompson, Mary Poindexter Williams is the co-lead. She won hearts two summers ago in I Hate Hamlet and
must have been invited back from West Virginia for her ability to get
the maximum crackle out of the dialogue, with the right accent. Her
lines often exude a poignancy that the gay guy lacks. When Minetti
chides her for not giving her actual age, she sighs, “If you say your
real age out loud, your face hears you.”
This production runs through Saturday, Aug. 28. See Times Table for information.