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The Jig of Life

Michael Onstein and Margot White cut a rug
Susan Diane Green

In a dingy sixth-floor room, two lonely souls join hands to escape their solitude and isolation through the medium of dance. They shuffle across the floor, clumsily performing a waltz as they banter about the drama of their lives.

If this scenario sounds as though it were penned by romance novelist Danielle Steel, think again. Florida Stage's production of Allan Knee's Syncopation, while beginning with a trite premise, is packed with surprises. Although the lead players' journey predictably results in something positive, the story's twists and turns are unexpected, and the characters are real enough that the resolution they find definitely feels earned. Henry (Michael Onstein) is a Jewish meatpacker in his early forties whose idols, the famous team of Vernon and Irene Castle, inspire him to become a dancer. Anna (Margot White), who is in her early twenties, is the daughter of Italian immigrants. She toils in a factory 12 hours a day sewing beads to garments. The story of these two New Yorkers begins when Henry places an advertisement in the newspaper soliciting a dance partner and Anna warily responds.

Dancer Isadora Duncan, an early 20th-century renegade, said before her death: "Most human beings waste some 25 to 30 years of their lives before they break through the actual and conventional lies [that] surround them." These words are harbingers to Anna and Henry, two frustrated dancers who are stifled by an exploitative and unfair society.

Syncopation gives a captivating look at the Big Apple. The year is 1911, a time of massive immigration for New York. Anna and Henry represent two of the city's biggest immigrant groups: Italians and Eastern European Jews. The suffragette movement and labor unions are just beginning to form and gain momentum. The play's story is interesting as much for its history as for its romance.

"I've been practicing seven weeks now the same step every night, over and over," Henry muses early in the play. "Step and glide. Step and glide. I saw the Castles do such a step. But how they managed it with such ease and style escapes me." What we discover is that the key to dancing lies less in the body movement than in the ear -- one's ability to listen to oneself and one's partner. Syncopation does not catalog the steps in the transformation of two mediocre dancers into two professional dancers, rather it is a memoir of two people who, through their awkward dance steps, become more human.

Choreographer Lynnette Barkley's challenge was to create steps in a genre of dance based on flawless partnering -- for two characters who are far from flawless. The foxtrot and other ballroom dances rely upon the dancers' abilities to move not just in unison but as one. Wisely Barkley does not try to present the dance as something to be enjoyed from an aesthetic point of view but as a visual accompaniment to an ongoing dialogue between two human beings haphazardly seeking intimacy. Box steps and waltz variations are used as the platform for Anna and Henry's conversations. (The characters are often dancing and talking simultaneously.) The stomping and thumping of their heels on the wooden floor provide a rhythmic display of hidden emotion.

On the outside Anna and Henry are opposites. Anna is prim and proper, a conformist. She works as a beader, a job that demands precision and forbids creativity. As she comments, "At the factory they tell us: "They say every bead has its place.'" Anna, like the beads she meticulously sews on dresses, has her place. She takes the same path to work every day, looks in the same shop windows, strolls around the neighborhood with her father every Sunday, and plans to marry the respectable Mr. Parva. Henry, on the other hand, is a rebel. He's never settled down or married. He's a loner who hangs out at the docks with ne'er-do-wells and rabble-rousers, talking about philosophy and the rights of laborers. Fortunately Knee has given both characters the dimension necessary to keep a two-person show refreshingly engaging: Under all her petticoats, Anna has outrageously beaded stockings; Henry, likewise, has quiet corners and a gentle side. His grittiness and gruff bark are not a façade but a signal he is a lonely man; they are as integral to his fully fleshed-out personality as are his vulnerabilities. Onstein has exquisite control over his body language and manages to convey a wide range of moods through simple steps. Onstein's greatest talent, though, is his humor. He's a vivid teller of jokes and anecdotes, and perhaps because he is often doing a soft-shoe as he talks, his character is delightfully grounded in the time period.

Henry repeatedly tells Anna, "You gotta stop thinking. You can't dance and think at the same time." Despite her awkward two-step, Margot White is both elegant and sensible. Her Jessica Lange good looks vividly clash with Onstein's brash mannerisms and five o'clock shadow. Onstein's dance sequences, while not technically sophisticated, are light and breezy, giving his character a physical confidence and a solid stage presence that occasionally overshadows White's. The actress' physicality conveys Anna's awkwardness: a rigid upper body and an almost wincing facial expression that appears practically every time Henry tries to dance with her. The actress does not transform from puritanical to licentious between scenes, but because the script repeatedly calls for her to be shy, she employs an articulate vocabulary of gesture. Still, it would be nice to see a little more range. The play should also give a little more attention to Anna's repressed emotions; passion, hope, desire, and frustration would go a long way in giving her character a more interesting stage presence.

While well crafted, Knee's script is a bit slow, especially during the first half. The play is organized with a diary-style narrative technique that has Anna and Henry, in quick asides, telling the date and giving details of their lives or current events. This device seems somewhat useful but ultimately unnecessary, as it makes us overly aware of time's slow and heavy steps.

Interestingly enough, Syncopation is reminiscent of the more modern but equally "no man is an island"­themed drama by Terrence McNally, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Although they were written almost 70 years apart, both plays explore the reality of Johnny's crass but succinct declaration: "There are a million reasons for men and women not to love each other." In both plays the tension is contingent on each person's ability and willingness to reach out from an isolated but safe existence into the frightening territory of another's heart. Both couples act out their relationships against a grim New York City backdrop. The main difference is that Frankie and Johnny perform their drama in bed, whereas Anna and Henry act theirs out on the dance floor. The fact that we can make such comparisons points out the universal and timeless qualities -- love, isolation, conformity, and repression -- of Syncopation.


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