by Michael Bracken
At its best, Clare Barron’s Dance Nation, at Playwrights Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater, reminds one of The Mad Ones’ Miles for Mary, which played at the same theater earlier this year and is presently up for a Drama Desk Outstanding Play Award.
Both works dwell on the nuances of relationship and communication in the context of a small group working toward a goal. Miles luxuriates in the commonplace for its entirety. Dance Nation hops back and forth between the ordinary and grander, less reality-based moments. It takes off regularly for the melodramatic and fanciful. Unfortunately, its flights don’t always land smoothly.
Dance Nation follows the exploits of an amateur dance team, seven girls and one boy, that faces off against other dance teams through a series of competitions that culminates in the nationalsin Tampa Bay. The dancers are supposed to be around thirteen, but Barron went with actors of assorted ages, wishing to avoid the casting convention of using petite 25-year-olds to portray girls half their age.
Whatever the reasoning, the casting philosophy gives the play – and the players – a little extra humor to work with. Most of the actresses look like they’re in their twenties or thereabouts, but one, Ellen Maddow, who plays Maeve, clocks in at somewhere north of fifty. It’s fun just to watch her navigate the stage, imposing adolescent attitude and movement on a much older body.
When asked what she’d like to do with her life, Maeve responds, “Maybe astrophysics or something like that.” The comedy of a nascent teen casually opting for a career as an astrophysicist is underlined by the incongruity of her middle-aged body. Maddow’s take on the role is one of complete nonchalance.
Dance Nation gives the audience a sense of being behind the scenes. We hear the girls sharing all kinds of things with each other, in intimate conversations about dance or dancers or anything pubescent girls talk about.
Where Dance Nation gets into trouble is when it has its characters wax anthemic. Fairly early in the show, Ashlee (Lucy Taylor) does a long, profanity-laced rant about how smart and pretty she is. Toward the end of the play, the entire company, including its two males but minus one female, unites for a paean to each individual’s vulva.
Both chants are too long. Ashlee’s is full of unexplained anger. Talking about how wonderful she is, she spits the words out, each one an attack, and it’s never clear whom or what she’s attacking. And the oft-repeated chant of the “perfect pussy” near the final curtain is numbing in its repetition.
Director Lee Sunday Evans is right in tune with the play’s humor. Some of it comes from bad dancing, but Evans is wise to tread lightly, not pandering to the easy laugh.
Classes are given, and the team is coached, by Dance Teacher Pat (Thomas Jay Ryan – The Crucible). Ryan’s performance is subtle and layered. He walks a fine line between manipulative master and someone who really cares about the girls.
Dina Shihabi makes a lovely Amina, the best dancer of the group. When they’re dancing and even when they’re not, she stands out from the crowd, with her effortless grace and perfect posture. Her friend Zuzu (Eboni Booth) is more of a worrier, convincing herself in advance that she will fail, as she does. Ikechukwu Ufomadu makes an unassuming Luke; the only thing we know about him is that he’s in love with Zuzu.
The music is beat-driven pop, heavy on bass with some hip-hop and horns thrown in. Dance Nation intrigues with its probing into the heads of putative thirteen-year-olds sitting atop older bodies. But when it takes itself too seriously, it quickly loses its charm.
Photos: Joan Marcus
Through June 3rd at Playwrights Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater (416 West 42nd Street). www.phnyc.org . One hour forty-five minutes with no intermission.