PITTSFIELD -- It's very hard not to be drawn to Senga Quinn and Ever Montgomery, the two characters in Mark St. Germain's ingratiating new play "Dancing Lessons," especially as they are played by Paige Davis and John Cariani in the play's engaging world premiere at Barrington Stage Company's Boyd-Quinson Mainstage.
Senga's left knee and leg were smashed in a freakish accident involving a cab. Without surgery, it is improbable that she will dance again and because she has a rare genetIc disorder that renders her highly allergic to anesthesia, surgery is a life-threatening risk.
Nearly broken and self-pitying, Senga spends her post-hospital home recovery curled up on the couch in her Upper West Side New York studio apartment, drinking and popping pills.
Into her life drops an upstairs neighbor, a sweet, affable guy named Ever Montgomery, whose best, and only, friend in the building is the doorman, Rudolfo, who proves to be a valuable source of information for Ever.
Ever is a geoscientist who teaches at New York Institute of Technology. He is autistic -- Asperger's syndrome.
What he wants from Senga is a dance lesson -- one one-hour lesson so he can make a somewhat reasonable effort at dancing at a dinner honoring him at the end of the week. He's prepared to pay Senga $2,153 for her trouble.
Dance steps, as it turns out, are the least of the lessons to be taught and learned as Ever and Senga spend increasing amounts of time together in the days leading up to the dinner-dance.
In a sense, Ever lives a literal life. Imagination is an unknown. Jokes are beyond his ken. He has a childlike directness, openness and honesty. He is sincere and compassionate; self-conscious and awkward; shy and embarrassed; fearful of being touched; willing, albeit reluctantly at times, to learn what he doesn't know, experience what he hasn't experienced.
As a professional Broadway dancer, Senga moves in a world of illusion and narrative reality. Her facility for telling stories to a paying audience willing to accept the fiction spills into her own life; a life constructed of lies and half-truths she tells herself and others in order to survive, to keep from losing hope.
Intimacy emerges as a central theme here. Whom, how and when do you trust? How far do you go in a relationship? How do you know when and how to love? And what are the consequences? -- questions that fill the play's emotional palette.
St. Germain's humor is perceptive and unselfconscious. At times -- in particular a sequence in which Ever dispenses some statistical information and historical background on autism to Senga, and to us -- it feels as if St. Germain has co-opted his characters and unintentionally disengaged us before regaining lost ground.
There's nothing radically surprising here. A flight of fancy near the end -- a sequence that could use more open space on the stage than it can be given here -- nudges "Dancing Lessons" ever so much closer to cloying sentimentality. That it doesn't overstep the line it so teasingly coaxes says much about Julianne Boyd's focused direction and staging and even more about the delicate, definitive work of her two actors.
Cariani's Ever, whom you just want to put your arms around and assure that everything will be fine, and Davis' spunky, tenacious, giving, sexy, emotionally conflicted and graceful Senga are both characters with whom it is well worth spending an intermissionless 95 minutes.
DANCING LESSONS by Mark St. Germain. Directed by Julianne Boyd; scenic designer, James J. Fenton; costume designer, Sara Jean Tosetti; lighting designer, Mary Louise Geiger; projection designer, Andrew Bauer; sound designer, Will Pickens. Through Sunday. Eves.: 7 Wed.; 8 Thu.-Sat. Mats.: 2 Wed., Fri; 5 Sun. Barrington Stage Company, Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, 30 Union St., Pittsfield. Tickets: $20 and up. (413) 236-8888; barringtonstageco.org. 1 hour 35 minutes
Senga Paige Davis
Ever John Cariani