Four decades have taken spin out of `Slow Dance'

Despite efforts, production comes across as contrived

TheaterReview

March 23, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

In the four decades since it debuted on Broadway, William Hanley's Slow Dance on the Killing Ground has largely lapsed into obscurity.

And despite director Jennifer L. Nelson's earnest efforts - and a standout professional Baltimore stage debut by a young actor named Brandon J. Price - Everyman Theatre's production cannot disguise the flaws that led to the play's drop in popularity.

A soul-baring, late-night confrontation involving three strangers - a German immigrant, an African-American teen-ager and a Jewish college student - Hanley's script may once have seemed bold and daring. But nowadays this three-way character study, laden with confessional monologues, comes across as contrived and formulaic.

On a June night in 1962, two desperate young people make separate, frenzied entrances into the Brooklyn candy store owned by a reclusive refugee named Mr. Glas. As Slow Dance s-l-o-w-l-y unfolds, all three characters unburden their hearts by sharing their tragic stories. In the process, the three bond in a manner that, at least in the early 1960s, might have been construed as a ray of hope for interracial and intergenerational understanding.

The most eccentric and disturbed of the three is Randall, an 18-year-old who accurately describes himself as an exemplar of "self-induced schizophrenia ... the Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of the Negro race." Price - an alumnus of Baltimore School for the Arts and the Juilliard School - portrays Randall in a mercurial manner that makes him the fascinating center of Everyman's production.

Price's Randall is a skittish, furtive young man whose behavior is even more bizarre than his eclectic apparel - dark suit, fedora, cape with velvet collar, sunglasses and white high-top tennis shoes. Mixing a smattering of beatnik lingo with literary references and the occasional jumbo-sized word, Price speaks in an irritatingly high, little voice that seems to originate somewhere behind his sinuses.

The real fascination, however, comes when Price's voice descends into a normal, low register. The character explains these sudden shifts by saying he runs out of gas, but Price makes it clear that what really happens in these rare moments is that Randall removes the protective mask he wears to hide from the world - and from himself.

And Randall has a lot to hide from, beginning with the police. Though Price makes the character's nervous energy palpable, there is one, slight flaw in his performance: When Randall's story finally comes out, Price still seems too engaging and too detached to make his dark secret entirely credible.

Mr. Glas suffers from more serious flaws, rooted primarily in Hanley's conception of the character, but also apparent in Stan Weiman's depiction. A man with a concentration camp tattoo on his forearm, Glas claims to have been a political prisoner who was shipped to Mauthausen because he was a Communist. Glas is not, however, the victim he appears to be.

Indeed, he hasn't told his real story in 23 years, yet we're supposed to believe that he not only comes clean now, but also allows himself to serve as the defendant in a mock trial in which Randall is his judge. Furthermore, in Weiman's portrayal, revealing the truth seems to turn Glas into a completely different person - a gentle grandfatherly type whose new-found wisdom allows him to sum up the play's messages, which are, essentially, that we choose the path we take in life and only we can save us from ourselves.

As to the third character, Kathleen Coons' Rosie thinks of herself as an outspoken, modern young woman. After all, she has made the pragmatic decision to have an illegal abortion so as not to interfere with her schooling and career. But Rosie is a bleeding heart, prone to hysterics - a characterization compromised by Coons' oddly comic-sounding "Nu Yawk" accent.

One production element that definitely rings true is designer Lewis Folden's beautifully detailed set. From the old-fashioned pay phone to the jars of penny candy - and including lighting designer Michael Klima's flashing squad car lights - just about every object on stage feels like the real thing.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the play's characters or strained situation.

Try as it may to be a gritty, urban drama, Slow Dance is, at best, a shadow dance.

Theater

What: Slow Dance on the Killing Ground

Where: Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; matinees at 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; through April 18

Tickets: $18-$25

Call: 410-752 --2208

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