by Ron Cohen · October 27, 2013
Indie Artists on New Plays #16: Ron Cohen looks at House of Dance now playing at Abrons Arts Center
I’m pretty sure there’s a subliminal coherence behind all the obtuseness of House of Dance: the truncated bits of dialogue, the nonsequiturs, the pauses and the sudden shifts in characterizations. But it was hard for me to detect it. Publicity for the play, written and directed by Tina Satter, describes it as “an intimate, heartfelt look into defining oneself through the context of others.” So, I’m willing to accept that, because Satter certainly gives evidence throughout the show that she is a smart, imaginative and earnest creator of theatre. She also displays a sense of humor, even if clarity is not her strong suit. Furthermore, her play has a formidable pedigree, being presented by Richard Maxwell’s New York City Players’ American Playwrights Division. Maxwell, a pillar of New York’s experimental theater scene, has set up the division to produce plays of emerging writers who direct their own work. The production is solid, and its four actors carry off their tasks with bravura.
As for the script, it takes place in a dance studio, and Satter, evincing her directorial savvy, has staged it within an actual dance studio in the Abrons Art Center, with the audience banked on two sides of the room. At the start, a somewhat concerned looking fellow (Paul Pontrelli) enters the room and does a well-practiced tap dance routine. We quickly discern he’s the piano player for the tap dance class. Then, Martle the teacher (Jim Fletcher) enters, followed by Lee (Jess Barbaglio), an androgynous-appearing student who wants to prepare for a tap dance competition coming up the next day. And for a brief while, it’s a solo class. Fletcher, who looks like he could be an NFL offensive guard, proves to be quite adept at tap, as does Barbaglio. Together they make quite a dance team, Fletcher often affecting a deadpan style, and Barbaglio fairly bursting with exuberance. Things get more involved when a distraught woman named Brendan (Elizabeth DeMent) enters the room against Martle’s wishes. It seems that they had some kind of relationship in the past, and unspecified tension bristles between them.
As the class progresses, the piano player adds to the confusion, frequently getting up from the piano and speaking in different dialects. All four characters engage in various exchanges, including a slow motion free-for-all and a sitting-down tap routine that’s a show-stopper. Hannah Heller did the snappy choreography, and Chris Giarmo contributed sound design and some original music. The show pretty much ends with Lee asking Martle if he’ll be at the competition and getting a negative reply.
The dialogue is, for the most part, extremely terse. Satter, however, does enrich her script with some affecting but circuitous monologs, as when Martle describes his relationship with Brendan and when Lee talks about not seeing “something that encloses me with safety where I have regular support and love that flows all ways.”
But don’t except any soul-baring confessions, a la A Chorus Line. As you may have gathered by now, House of Dance, despite all its hoofing, is not a Broadway baby.