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Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks (10/29/2003 - 11/23/2003)


 

AP: "'Six Dance Lessons' Has Two Left Feet"

"Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks" has two left feet. But for masochistic theater buffs, it does offer a bit of nostalgia.

This innocuous play by Richard Alfieri recalls wan Broadway comedies of years gone by, shows that inexplicably got to New York and then disappeared quickly.

These unfortunate productions were a regular occurrence in the 1950s, 1960s and even into the 1970s. Many had odd, often vaguely sexual, titles: "Venus at Large," "Fair Game for Lovers," "The Fun Couple," "Roar Like a Dove," "Have I Got a Girl for You!" and (a personal favorite) "Never Live Over a Pretzel Factory." OK, that's more about food than sex.

We don't get many of their ilk anymore. Racier and racier TV sitcoms have filled the gap. Mounting production costs diminished their numbers. And the rising price of theater tickets - today upward of $80 for "Six Dance Lessons" - discouraged audiences.

This two-character effort, which opened Wednesday at the Belasco Theatre, is a predictable variation on the classic "Odd Couple" theme: loudmouth, opinionated dance instructor (Mark Hamill) meets unhappy, uptight, Florida widow (Polly Bergen). Friendship ensues.

Each "lesson" lasts one scene and we get to watch the two stars briefly work their way through swing, the tango, the waltz, the fox-trot, the cha-cha and something called "contemporary," which, in this case, means dancing to music by the Beach Boys. Along the way, secrets are revealed. Well, they hardly are secrets, since these revelations are telegraphed far in advance.

Hamill delivers an aggressive, almost coarse performance as instructor Michael Minetti, an emotional middle-age man who turns out to be gay. He is a one-time Broadway chorus boy who came back to Florida to take care of an ailing mother and then stayed on after she died.

Bergen portrays the lonely widow of a Baptist minister, a retired schoolteacher who decides to pay for companionship because she has no friends. The woman is suspicious, more than a bit frosty and takes offense at the instructor's forward manner. Their spats eventually grow tiresome, particularly when the plot takes a turn toward the serious.

Alfieri's formulaic dialogue extends to the jokes. One long-running gag in the show concerns a downstairs neighbor who immediately calls each time the twosome start dancing in the widow's modest St. Petersburg condo. And, believe it or not, these calls provide some of the better laugh lines.

That said, Hamill and Bergen have an easy rapport, working well with each other under Arthur Allan Seidelman's direction. Plus Bergen looks terrific in the costume changes that occur with each new dance lesson.

Her clothes, at least, make one mildly curious about what the character will be wearing in the next scene. Unfortunately, that curiosity does not extend to the plot of "Six Dance Lessons in six Weeks." You already know how the tale will turn out.


AP
10/29/2003

New York Daily News: "'Dance Lessons' a misstep"

Broadway is often merely a showcase to publicize properties for community theaters. How else to explain Richard Alfieri's feeble "Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks?"

Its cast consists of two characters - already ideal, given the economics of many suburban theater groups.

One is an elderly widow - little theaters are always in need of material for the aging actresses who founded them. The other character is a young gay man - few amateur groups have a shortage of these.

The premise is that the spunky widow, whose husband was a bigoted Baptist minister, at first resists but then befriends the short-tempered, bitchy young man who has come to give her dance lessons in her comfy Florida co-op.

It is a premise that might have yielded an involving play, but Alfieri has executed it clumsily.

The first act consists of scenes that are all alike - the two fight, generally over contrived issues. Each battle is interrupted by a phone call from the downstairs neighbor, after which they reconcile. Each scene ends with them dancing.

Halfway through the second act, we get tons of exposition. The pasts of both characters are mostly cliches, but a cannier playwright would at least have conveyed them sooner.

Polly Bergen, a savvy comic actress, knows how to get laughs with arch delivery. I doubt she'd get more if she really suggested a Southern minister's widow rather than a wisecracking broad.

As her teacher, Mark Hamill has an amiable puppy playfulness, but his constant eruptions of anger seem gratuitous, never the reflection of the circumstances we learn late in the game. Neither actor can take the material beyond its sitcom roots.

With the exception of a smart suit she wears at the end of the first act, the lumpiness of Bergen's costumes reminds us she has to make quick changes. It's as if this production was also showcasing the Simplicity patterns you can use when you do it in Podunk.

Arthur Allan Seidelman's direction is efficient if unimaginative. None of this matters. "Six Lessons" is the answer to the needs of amateur groups all over America. You needn't see it here because before long it will be available everywhere.


New York Daily News
10/29/2003

New York Post: "Hamill, Bergen Give 'Lessons' In How To Act"

An older woman. A younger man. Dancing cheek-to-cheek - well, kind of.

But in this May/September romance, sex never rears.

Richard Alfieri's "Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks," which opened last night at the Belasco Theatre, offers instead, in an amiably predictable fashion, feel-good lessons in life

It's a great deal more entertaining than staying at home and watching "Joe Millionaire" - but not that much more illuminating.

Still, its heart is in the right place, but then so are the hearts of most plays. It's their minds we worry about.

Alfieri's heroine is Lily Harrison (Polly Bergen), the widow of a Baptist minister, living in modest, solitary comfort in a small Florida condo with a great view of the beach.

She answers an advertisement for dance lessons at home - more, it seems, for human companionship than serious tuition.

Enter sometime Broadway gypsy Michael Minetti (Mark Hamill), who describes himself with sharpshooter accuracy as "a passive aggressive queen with a bad attitude."

Nothing much happens - but the characters reveal themselves bit by bit, class by class, and their relationship, as they say, deepens.

As it turns out, they are both quixotically lovable, but need to learn how to be their own best friends.

With a few decent laughs, "Lessons" is essentially undemanding, unremarkable entertainment of the one-eye dry/one-eye damp variety that would make a perfectly good TV movie of the week.

Arthur Allan Seidelman has staaed it in that neatlv slick TV fashion, while Helen Butler's costumes are adroitly amusing and Roy Christopher's setting looks just like an advertisement for middle-range Florida real estate.

Undoubtably the best thing about the evening are the awesomely professional and very pleasing performances by Bergen and Hamill.

Hamill, not at all unattractive but garishly abrasive, is oddly delightful - but the winner of these personality stakes is the adorable, but happily not too adorable, Bergen.

Both actors make the very best of the material - and Seidelman has them interplaying and intercutting with a dexterity that's a joy to watch.


New York Post
10/30/2003

New York Times: "Happiness So Unlikely It's Probably Inevitable"

Can a middle-aged gay former Broadway chorus boy whose acerbic demeanor hides a deep loneliness and the elderly widow of a Baptist minister who submerges her liberal, fun-loving nature beneath a prim formality find happiness together in a Florida condominium?

Only if you think the answer to this question is no should you buy a ticket to ''Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks,'' the lame and utterly predictable piece of fluff by Richard Alfieri that opened yesterday at the Belasco Theater. When Michael Minetti (Mark Hamill), a dance instructor, enters the condominium owned by Lily Harrison (Polly Bergen) for her first lesson, they offend each other right off the bat.

From that moment on, the path toward their unlikely friendship is set in stone, and the only uncertainty is which of them will turn out to be doomed. Actually, there's another question, which is how this play and this production, the most dismissible entry on Broadway of the last few seasons, ever escaped from the community theater circuit. There life is always sentimental and bittersweet, vulgarities spoken by an old woman constitute riotous, risqué humor and scenery chewing is the height of the actor's art.

Each of the first six scenes is a dance lesson -- tango, fox trot, cha-cha etc. -- and ends with Mr. Hamill and Ms. Bergen executing a few steps to recorded music as the lights go down. The seventh scene is the melancholy conclusion.

What the scenes ostensibly accomplish, of course, is the development of a relationship, in which the two people lie to each other, reveal their lies, discover they are more alike than not and finally confess their mutual need.

But Mr. Alfieri, who never met a cliché he didn't like (you don't think Lily would lie about her age, do you?), has written a surprise-free script with repetitious generic squabbles, and the show has been directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman so that each scene echoes the previous one in arc and tone. When, in the end, the hokey lighting by Tom Ruzika illustrates a sunset over the Gulf of Mexico, the close-of-life metaphor, spelled out in the script -- the sunset is always at its most beautiful before going dark -- is enough to raise unsolicited giggles.

Ms. Bergen at least keeps her professional dignity in not wringing the intended pathos from Lily, and she handles the naughty bits and the television film dialogue with the aplomb of a good sport. Mr. Hamill, on the other hand, plays Michael with the flamboyant self-regard of a drama queen that quickly becomes intolerable. Every line has a strained flourish, an earnest bleat of emotion. The cords of his neck regularly bulge. It's no wonder his voice sounded hoarse.

Toward the end of Monday night's performance, an elderly man in the front row collapsed, gasping for breath, and the Emergency Medical Service took him to a hospital, where he recovered. It turned out he had choked on a candy. Now that's a metaphor.


New York Times
10/30/2003

Newsday: "Step-by-step Formula"

In the matter of niche theater programming, demographic targeting does not get more specific than "Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks."

In Richard Alfieri's two-character formula of a play, which opened last night at the Belasco Theatre, a lonely, retired Florida widow named Lily signs up for six weeks of dance lessons. A younger, though no longer young, gay fellow named Michael shows up at her condo. They don't get along. They do get along. They don't get along. Somebody might be sick. Each scene is named after the dance to be learned that week. The seventh scene is a "bonus lesson." Sunrise. Sunset. Who is teaching whom?

When "Six Dance Lessons" opened at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, the casting had the aura of legend twinkling around it. According to trustworthy reports, Uta Hagen, the great actress and teacher, was giving a rare West Coast acting lesson as Lily. And David Hyde Pierce, a New York theater favorite before Frasier had a brother, helped turned the minor play into a genuine celebrity event.

Unfortunately, Hagen took ill and Pierce, apparently, went back to the tube. Instead of inspired casting, what we have now - at a preposterous $80 Broadway top - is the expedient competence of Polly Bergen and Mark Hamill. Whatever the original collaboration may have done to enhance Alfieri's sweet but unrelentingly predictable work, we can only imagine. If there are enough dinner theaters left in retirement communities to keep the royalties rolling in, we do not know. But Elke Sommer is said to be doing the Dusseldorf production. And Alfieri is reportedly working on a screen version.

Here we have an economical single set, designed by Roy Christopher, a condo on the St. Petersburg gulf with faux bamboo furniture and the cheerful banality of fronds. Helen Butler's costumes change appropriately with each blackout scene. Tom Ruzika's lights capture the almost kitschy reality of the setting sun.

Bergen, so good in recent revivals of "Cabaret" and "Follies," looks perhaps too well maintained and seems a bit too classy as the retired schoolteacher and widow of a Baptist minister. Hamill, no longer Luke Skywalker, has a useful, beaten-up, been-around quality as a man whose chorus-boy adventures in New York have dried up. As directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman, however, Michael's abrasive qualities seem more manic and unstable than merely overbearing.

This is one of those greeting-card relationship fictions. Lies are uncovered. Secrets are confessed. People yell too much, then trust too easily. An unseen neighbor, Ida, phones during each scene to complain about the dancers' noise and, when she no longer calls, we know to worry. When Michael tells Lily he is gay, Alfieri betrays the intelligence of his character by having Lily accuse him of being "in the pantry" instead of the closet.

Just before the final scene at Monday's press preview, a theatergoer in the front row got ill and the play was stopped until an ambulance arrived. We were invited to see the drama again without the interruption. Unfortunately, this was not necessary.


Newsday
10/30/2003

USA Today: "'Dance Lessons' lacks sole"

In the playbill for Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks (* 1/2), leading man Mark Hamill refers only tacitly, and with tongue in cheek, to the film role that made him famous. "He has earned international acclaim," Hamill's bio reads, "for his tireless efforts to thwart the Dark Side."

Unfortunately, the actor who played Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars faces a more daunting obstacle than Darth Vader in this new play by Richard Alfieri, which opened Wednesday at Broadway's Belasco Theatre. Hamill and his co-star, the estimable stage veteran Polly Bergen, are saddled with a script so lame that not even The Force could make it fly.

The premise is about as hokey as they come: Lily, a lonely old woman living in Florida, signs up for private dance classes and finds herself with Michael, a younger instructor whose personality and experience seem completely out of sync with hers. Yet even as they colorfully clash, a tender rapport develops between the jaded hipster and his elderly client, who we discover share more in common than either could have expected.

There are writers, I'm sure, who could build an entertaining little story on such a banal foundation. But Alfieri aspires to levels of sophistication and social relevance beyond his grasp. Michael, a gay man who has danced on the New York stage, is drawn as a boilerplate drama queen, whirling about and whining of his personal and professional disappointments. "Sorry," he tells Lily at one point, "your rose-colored goggles get knocked off pretty quickly when you're swimming against the mainstream."

Playing the ostensibly hipper character, Hamill has to deliver the lion's share of such cringe-inducing attempts at meaningful irreverence. But Bergen suffers plenty as Lily, a Southern Baptist minister's widow whose dark family secrets are as predictable as the you-go-grandma sass underlying her prim facade. Lily is also provided with a reliably meddlesome neighbor named Ida, whom we never see, but whose traits evoke any number of sorry sitcom stalwarts.

Though some of Lily's naive assumptions about Michael's lifestyle are off base, the late husband she recalls is every bit the fire-breathing, Bible-thumping bigot that Michael imagines. It apparently never occurred to Alfieri that exploring the potential for homophobia in a three-dimensional human being could prove more interesting than merely dragging out a tired stereotype.

Arthur Allan Seidelman's ham-fisted direction offers no more imagination, and indulges the hackneyed elements of both characters. Bergen and Hamill struggle valiantly nonetheless, and to their credit manage to eke out a few poignant moments together, especially toward the end of the play.

Ultimately, though, Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks is a lost battle. You would be likely to find more excitement and insight in a second-rate sci-fi flick — or a Golden Girls rerun.


USA Today
11/02/2003

Variety: "Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks"

A desiccated piece of Florida dinner-theater driftwood appears to have beached itself at the Belasco Theater. The onrushing tide of critical opprobrium should see it off again shortly. Six weeks would be a generous estimate for the Broadway lifespan of "Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks" -- this turkey, like so many others, is not likely to survive Thanksgiving.

A two-hander set in a condo in St. Petersburg, Fla., Richard Alfieri's play is a subpar subplot from an episode of "The Golden Girls" stretched to interminable length. It's a musty relic from the days when audiences looked not to the tube but to Broadway for comfortably tame comedy mixed with sentimental mush.

The setup: Lonely old widow hires brash young dance instructor to teach her a few moves. What she really needs is a little companionship, of course. Their frosty professional relationship evolves instantly into what is presumably meant to be a touching friendship, amid a numbing barrage of wisecracks set to the clinical beat of a TV laughtrack.

The play is divided into six scenes, one for the swing, the tango, the waltz, etc. But aside from the divergent dance steps, there is little to differentiate them. Each proceeds along the same formulaic path. He enters, feisty. She's cool. He takes offense, blurts out something testy (calling her a "tight-assed old biddy"). She is outraged. They exchange insults. He threatens to storm out. She relents. He relents. They exchange emotional revelations. (Her husband was a bigot; he's gay; her daughter died young; he lost a lover to AIDS.) They dance. End of scene.

Repeat five more times, with minor variations.

The broken-record rhythm only enhances the play's synthetic quality, as do labored and often stale jokes. When he reveals he's gay, she wonders why he stayed "in the pantry" for so long. When he says her back is "pretty as a strudel," she zings back, "Yeah, pasty and flaky." The play's feeblest contrivance may be a running gag -- make that a wheezing gag -- about the cranky dame downstairs who calls to complain about the noise. But there's nothing fresh here. His heartfelt soliloquies about his tortured life as an oppressed minority are well past their sell-by date, and the late-coming revelation that she's terminally ill is altogether desperate.

As directed with a bruising lack of sensitivity by Arthur Allen Seidelman, the play does not even provide a comfortable vehicle for the evening's performers. Mark Hamill, still best known, of course, as Luke Skywalker, appears to be aiming for impish charm but lands somewhere in the vicinity of obnoxious. His abrasive perf only increases the off-puttingly shrill tone of the play's recurring combative sequences. (And why on earth didn't someone at least cut the line about his character being Italian? Hamill is about as Italian as Oscar Mayer baloney.) Bergen is more restrained and occasionally affecting, but her performance, too, is often strained and lacking in warmth. She does, at least, cut a lovely figure in a pretty array of evening wear from costume designer Helen Butler. (This Baptist preacher's wife apparently made regular excursions to Bergdorf Goodman.)

A more graceful production might have smoothed over some of the writing's coarseness (David Hyde Pierce and Uta Hagen were well received in the play's world premiere, also directed by Seidelman, at the Geffen Playhouse), but it's hard to know how to take the edge off laugh lines that find the lovably naughty dance instructor charming his elderly client by praising her "fuck-me" dress and calling her a "seductive slut." Ugh.


Variety
10/29/2003

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