For a play called “Dancing Lessons,” Mark St. Germain’s comedy-drama spends very little time on dancing or lessons. Instead, the play’s name is a metaphor for the delicate dance between two misfits who find a rare and honest connection through communication and touch.
The moving and funny 90-minute play, which opened North Coast Repertory Theatre’s 40th season on Saturday, is the company’s first indoor live production in 18 months. During the pandemic, North Coast produced several filmed plays for streaming, but there’s nothing like an in-person performance. It felt good to be back, despite the numerous senior audience members seated around me who removed their masks or wore them below their nose or chins for the duration of the show.
Set in 2014, “Dancing Lessons” is the story of two New York neighbors: Senga, a despondent Broadway dancer who hasn’t worked for months since a serious leg injury, and Ever, a college professor who is on the autism spectrum. Ever wants to fit in at an upcoming awards ceremony, but he doesn’t know how to dance, so he knocks on Senga’s door and asks if he can pay for a lesson.
Ever tells Senga that his aversion to touch and eye contact, inability to lie and loquacious speech is part of his Asperger’s syndrome. This makes it hard for him to read the room, make friends or have a romantic relationship. But from the beginning of the play, it’s clear that Senga is the one with the biggest hurdles to overcome. She abuses drugs and pills, avoids commitment, tells lies and has a phobia of leaving her apartment. But Ever’s persistence and kindness, and Senga’s desperation to connect, lead them to find friendship and romance.
Director Richard Baird thoughtfully layers the play with gemlike moments of humor and sweetness. This play could easily go off the rails when Ever’s autism-related awkward dancing and occasionally bizarre behavior is played for laughs. But Baird keeps the show on track by making sure Ever is in on the joke, and he builds an authentic relationship between his two actors.
Autism is a spectrum, which means autistic people can range widely from low- to high-functioning. Christopher M. Williams, who’s a gifted physical comedian, takes a bold step in playing Ever with a lot of physical behaviors that include facial tics, rocking movements, repetitive behaviors and hand spasms. It could become a very distracting performance if it wasn’t so consistent played and meticulously well-prepared.
Leilani Smith gives a deep, rich, warts-and-all performance as the flawed Senga, who learns to be honest with herself when Ever sees through her lies. Smith takes her character through a wide arc of emotions, all of them honestly played.
Cate Caplin created the choreography, Marty Burnett designed Senga’s apartment set, Elisa Benzonidesigned costumes, Matt Novotny created lighting, and Aaron Rumley designed the sound and digital projections.
“Dancing Lessons” is a crowd-pleasing play to welcome audiences back to live in-person theater, but a pre-show reminder for audience members to keep their masks on would be nice.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; 7 p.m. Sundays and Wednesdays; plus 2 p.m. Sept. 29. Through Oct. 3.
Where: North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach
COVID protocol: Proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID-19 PCR test result within 72 hours of performance date required. Masks are required indoors.
Phone: (858) 481-1055