Mismatched, squabbling partners: Let's dance

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By Doug Deuchler

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Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, the new production at Open Door Theater, begins as an antagonistic relationship between two very strong-willed people. Though repetitious and predictable, the two-character comedy by Richard Alfieri, is also a tender study of intimacy and loneliness. Its director, Charlie McGrath, keeps things moving.

Lily Harrison, portrayed by Mercita DeMonk, is an aging Florida preacher's widow who lives alone in a high-rise senior condo. She hires Michael Minetti, played by Wil Nifong, a middle-aged former Broadway chorus boy, to give her private dance lessons. Their prickly personalities immediately clash.

Lily is straight-laced and untrusting; Michael's gay and hot-tempered. But even though there are decades between them and they have nothing in common, they are similar souls, guarding old wounds while covering their loneliness.

This production offers a special pleasure by providing an opportunity to see veteran actress DeMonk onstage. She first performed on radio as a teenager, then became a bandstand singer, was a key mover and shaker at the dawn of the now defunct Village Players Theater half a century ago, and has enjoyed an illustrious career as a voice-over artist as well as actress. In terms of theater, DeMonk is truly a local legend. Dialect is her specialty, and she provides the character of Lily with a perfectly genteel South Carolina drawl. She also moves really well in the dance sequences.

Nifong has the showier role, I suppose, but it's more superficially drawn. Michael protects himself with his sass and anger. But the actor comes on too strong in some scenes. In their first encounter, he should be tossing off some of his "attitude" under his breath, not yelling at Lily. The chemistry between them often seems forced and implausible.

They're both touchy and outspoken, of course. Sparks fly from the get-go. Michael's a mouthy guy who flies off the handle, blurting out anything. Minutes after meeting Lily, he calls her a "tight-assed old biddy." Lily is sarcastic and sharp-tongued, but she keeps most of her real feelings bottled up.

They fray each other's nerves. But Michael needs the money and Lily needs company, so cue the swing music on the boom box. Let's dance.

Lily seems to already know these steps, the way Ginger Rogers somehow seemed to know each of Fred Astaire's moves the moment they stepped on the dance floor. But that's exactly the point. Lily needs human contact more than dance lessons. Yet she would never admit she's lonely. Soon she begins to trust Michael, warms up, and tosses back some wisecracks of her own.

What began as a rocky relationship evolves into a trusting friendship of compassion and loyalty. They find they need and like each other. As more secrets are shared, the distance begins to evaporate.

Each of the episodes revolves around a different dance step — the tango, the fox trot, the Viennese waltz, and such. Every scene follows the same pattern: Lily answers the door, she and Michael chat, they argue, they make up, they dance a new step, and then Lily answers the phone when Ida, her downstairs neighbor, calls to complain about the sound of dancing feet on her ceiling. During each of these weekly encounters, in a pattern of bickering and bonding, like any formulaic comedy about mismatched couples, we also find out secrets about this pair.

The sketchily-drawn characters don't have much depth even though this is a character-driven play.

The comedy does manage to be genuine and insightful when it focuses on the challenges of aging. Lily talks of the relentless invisibility of old age.

When she discusses her long, problematic marriage, Michael quips, "That's what you get for marrying outside your gender."

Lily's shocked to learn that in his past he's hired hustlers. "One way or another," Michael tells her, "you always pay for sex."

Lynn Kirsch did both the lovely costumes (different for every dance) and the lively choreography. At times I wished there was more dancing and less talking.

Josh Prisching's set design, a senior condo building on the Gulf Coast of Florida, is wonderful. Isiah Heacox painted the scenery. The centerpiece is a large picture window looking out on a sweeping view of the ocean. Paul Kerwin's lighting design is especially fine, creating some beautiful sunsets. Matthew Bonaccorso is the stage manager.

Though the writing may be cliche-driven, this comedy about lonely people reaching out is not without its charms. Six Dances also works well in the intimate performance space of Open Door Theater at Ridgeland & Harrison.

Doug Deuchler, a longtime educator, is an Oak Parker who, when not reviewing community theater for Wednesday Journal, is a stand-up comic, a local tour guide and docent, and author of several books about Oak Park and neighboring communities.

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