November 10, 2013

What I Learned in the Theatre:
Tina Satter's House of Dance

Tina Satter's House of Dance presents itself as such an amiable, loose-limbed, unassuming piece that it's easy to miss how complicated and tricky it really is.

Some background: There are several scenes, all set in more or less real time in the kind of small town dance studio you’d find in a strip mall or storefront of an otherwise abandoned downtown. Martle, the owner, is a big ole galoot with a gut and a toupee who’s slowly going to seed; his assistant and accompanist, Joel, is a prissy little fruitcake who clearly thinks he’s the only reason the studio’s stayed open. In rushes Lee, a longtime "prize pupil" (you figure this out because they all wear matching pink jackets with the House of Dance logo on the breast, and Martle gives her a bearhug the minute she explains her desperate situation) who needs to come up with a routine for some kind of Teen Tap roadshow contest tomorrow (later, she’ll tell everyone she’s planning to get the hell out of this dinky town and be a millionaire by the time she’s 40—but you already knew she was going to say that the minute she first opened her mouth). They have only just started this “solo class” when Brendan barges in, saying she needs space to finish her piece (or some such malarkey); by the time she spills her dance bag all over the floor—a tumble of tatty tinsel accessories and beauty products--and refuses to pick up the mess, you and everyone else in the studio knows she just one hot mess. The scenes unfold slowly, but somehow nothing really ever seems to get accomplished. These guys are all such slackers, such losers, they don’t even seem to be in a panic about their fecklessness (except for Brendan, of course, who seizes every possible moment to create another little drama; Joel also probably knows that nothing much is really going on, but since he disapproves of everything and keeps taking little nips out of one bottle after another, it’s all just his own little private drama too—which nobody, including himself, really cares about). Every once in a while they break into little dance routines. Every once in a while there’s a song while the action more-or-less stops. An hour later it’s all over, and that’s it.

Because it’s co-produced by Rich Maxwell’s New York City Players and Jim Fletcher is pretty much his main man, there’s more than a passing resemblance to an early Maxwell piece like Showy Lady Slipper that had the same mix of dopey, deadpan, low-brow scenes and out-of-the blue songs. But the differences are much more striking and ultimately revealing. It starts with the characters: Tina’s quartet are so juicy—so deftly drawn and so ripe with possibility—that the succession of scenes take on the kind of “theme and variation” patterns of, say, a good sitcom. Just as each new episode of Seinfeld tosses the same set of characters up in the air and lets them come down in yet another improbably yet entirely logical combination, so Tina’s scenes all have the same deep structure and all amount to the same kind of thing; they’re like beads on a string or—maybe a better analogy—a series of snapshots from the same roll of film (I have to use that metaphor while people still know what it means!). Plus—and this is an even bigger difference—they let all the performers have a field day. Because the room is small, and because these guys are all pros, they seem to be playing a game in which the person who underplays the most is the winner. But it’s all just that—a game they’re playing with each other and with us, and it’s not hard to catch them with that competitive glint in their eyes (Barbagallo's having so much fun she wants to sell every routine, the lousier the better). There is level of tension you almost never see in Maxwell’s work, and of course the fact that the dance is tap and tap is pretty much the ultimate high-energy showbiz plea for approval creates an even stronger connection between the characters in the story and the audience.

The tricky part, though, is how flimsy the attempt to “ground” everything in story turns out to be. Tina’s the polar opposite of Annie Baker; when you think back, it’s surprising how little specificity there really is, and the detail is mostly on the order of the tacky dance props and costumes that are produced from time to time. Baker’s plays toy with the idea of time standing still, but that’s just an elaboration of the boredom of cruddy little downs with winter coming on. In her plays, you can almost smell the cigarette butts floating in the rain-filled ashtrays. But Tina’s dramatic premises are all just that—after they’re tossed into the air, nobody pays any attention to them any more and it’s hard to remember where, or even whether, they fell to earth or just… disappeared. Just what is this teen tap roadshow really supposed to be, anyway, and how is it possible Lee has only just heard about it the day before the contest? Why doesn't anybody seem to care about whether it's even possible to learn a winning routine in 24 hours? For that matter, why does Lee have an eyeliner pencil mustache1?) And I think it’s this offhand treatment of the ostensible “action” that smooths over the breaks into song or dance (never—and for good reason—both at the same time. That, again, would run the risk of appearing to amount to something).

The great innovation of Rodgers and Hammerstein supposedly had to do with integrating music and scene, with the song "emerging from" the drama. No doubt this is true, but I wonder if behind all that was the growing sophistication of the American popular song. Though the songs from the musical theater have always been dumbed down relative to the best of the Great American Songbook (and yes, I’m looking at you Steven Sondheim!), there’s no question that average R&H number was in another galaxy from the Tin Pan Alley numbers of the 20’s. You could get away with sticking something like "Alexander’s Ragtime Band" in between two silly scenes or dance routines. A song like "What’s the Use of Wondrin'" raises the bar too high. But as songs developed further—especially when folk and rock took over in the 60’s and hit songs became intentionally oblique—it was possible to come out the other side, and throw a complex, evocative and ambiguous song right into the middle of the action and let the audience figure it out. TV’s been on to this for at least ten years, I think—those episodes of Homicide and then The Wire (did it go back even earlier?) where the action would go into a holding pattern—the cop or the vic would be wandering through a weeded lot or driving down a cruddy street—as a ballad flooded the sound track.

Tina’s piece uses the songs for emotional effect, of course—that’s what music does—but I think even more as “stuff-in-between” the scenes. If this blog has a thesis, it's that the future of the theatre (or at least dramatic structure) lies in cutting things apart. That the traditional play form is so dependent on closure and uniformity that it’s like a detective story: perfect, thrilling yet deeply, deeply limited. It can only do what it’s designed to do, and it’s only designed to do one thing. What Tina does with the interstitial stuff—the other stuff, the music and the dance—is just as important to the overall piece as the scenes, the "dramatic material.' And what she’s doing right now better than almost anyone out there is blending, smoothing, making these totally separate pieces fall into a pattern so they appear to be one2.

I wrote a play long ago in which I knew I wanted to to treat the scenes as separate, interchangeable pieces, but in order to make them clearly identifiable as pieces, I had to leave “blank space” in between. Tina’s figured out you can put richer stuff in there, and of course the result is also that much richer. Note to playwrights: Maybe you don't need to work so hard on those damned scenes after all; maybe you just need to come up with a really good song and a dance routine.

1 The minute you start looking for them, the whole piece appears riddled with these reality-breaking clues. The fake backdrop out the window. Lee singing her song into a mirror stage right. The missing onesie that turns up stuffed inside a pillow. Other than the endlessly mysterious performances, the only firm reality are the cinderblock walls of the studio space, and even they are covered with cardboard stars.
2  There's a great goofy moment toward the end where the four performers suddenly break into something they call the "Crypt dance." Never mind the set up--there's barely any--or what the routine actually involves (hint, it's "very scary.") It's the closest thing the piece has to a production number and it's clearly something the cast has worked up on their own. Speaking with Tina afterward, she said she knew she couldn't cut it but worried that it was still a little random. To me, that was precisely the point--it was random, but fulfilled the expectations we as audience had for the piece over and above the ostensible situation. Within the "reality" of the play, there was no way those four characters could come together in a routine. Fortunately, with the reality of the performance, there was no problem at all.