By Karen Isaacs
Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks now at Ivoryton Playhouse through May 22, is one of those plays that seems designed for old-fashioned summer theater. It is a gentle, bittersweet comedy about two disparate people who develop a caring relationship.
It is amazing that John Alfieri’s play was first produced in 2001 and reached Broadway for a brief run in 2003 starring Polly Bergen and Mark Hamill. In 2014, it was made into a film starring Gena Rowlands and Cheyenne Jackson.
The play is set on the west coast of Florida, where Lily has a condo overlooking the water. She is in her early 70s, a widow from South Carolina, and lonely. Her husband had been a Baptist minister. She has heard of a company called Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks which sends a dance instructor to the client’s home for hour lessons. She has signed up.
Michael is the instructor who arrives at her apartment door. After she cautiously lets him in and tells him her husband is out, the first lesson does not start off well. Michael is brash and loud; his humor does not go over with the apparently straight-laced Lily. When he insults her, she calls the company to report him, but he tells her his wife is ill and out of work. Lily relents and the first lesson commences.
As the lessons proceed, we learn more and more about both Lily and Michael. Each has been less than honest. Michael is not married, he is gay and had moved to Florida from NYC to care for his mother who had suffered from Alzheimer’s.
Lily finally admits that her husband is dead and begins to reveal that the marriage had not been a terribly happy one. She had suppressed her own personality to be the “minister’s wife.”
It is also clear that Lily really does not need dance lessons; she is a good dancer but tells Michael that she finds going to public dances humiliating; because of her age she feels invisible.
Just as in so many other plays, movies and TV shows, these two very different people develop a very caring relationship. They become friends and each reveals more about their feelings and lives than they probably have told anyone else.
The play’s structure is predictable. Most scenes open with Michael ringing the doorbell and Lily answering it. Michael is in an outfit that reflect the dance they will be working on, a pseudo-toreador outfit for the tango, a tux for the Viennese waltz, etc. They talk and dance until the fade out for the next scene.
The fact that the plot is predictable in many respects and similar to many others, does not take away from its charm or this very good production.
Valerie Stack Dodge plays Lily. You may not believe she is 70+, but she maintains an excellent accent throughout. You see her slowly unthawing and letting the shield that protects her slowly drop. She becomes vulnerable and charming.
Michael Iannucci plays Michael Minetti. His characterization gives us a man who uses New York brashness and humor to hide his pain: his mother’s illness, a friend who has died of AIDS (the play is seemingly set in the ‘90s), a career as a Broadway dancer that is over and more. He too shows us the vulnerability beneath his shield.
Sasha Brätt has managed to hide some of the predictability of the plot; the repetition of scene opening and closings for instance. He has carefully helped the performers get the most of the gentle humor; there are some funny lines. Choreographer Apollo Smile has created typical ballroom dances; what a typical dance lesson would include. It’s appropriate for the characters. William Russell Stark’s scenic design gives us the condo/apartment with a gorgeous view of the sunset over the beach which is aided by the lighting by Marcus Abbott. Lisa Bebey’s costumes again are absolutely appropriate; Lily looks like a repressed woman and Michael’s costumes reflect flash and low cost.
When you see this production, you might wonder how Michael Iannucci could play the same role as Mark Hamill (though he wasn’t as svelte as he once was) and Cheyenne Jackson, a certifiable hunk. I can only assume that for the film, some details of Michael’s life were changed for the younger actor.
Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks is at Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., Ivoryton, through May 22. For tickets visit ivortyonplayhouse.org or call 860-767-7318.