THE COMMON MAN has become the symbol of our age, the extraordinary and the passionate something to be shunned, questioned, doubted. We like Ordinary People-Mary Tyler Moores and Donald Sutherlands-whom we can relate to ourselves.
Something is lacking in this approach--a 'tension, an excitement that can only be found in the brittleness of the extraordinary, different people of the world. In a preoccupation with everyday life, we miss the fascination of burning passions. It is this emptiness that the Leverett House/Black CAST production of William Hanley's Slow Dance on the Killing Ground tries to fill. It succeeds admirably.
The technique is simple: take three extraordinary people, put them together in a room, and watch them go at one another. Jean Paul Sartre did something along these lines in No Exit. But in No Exit, the room was hell;here the room is sanctuary. Hell waits outside; the streets of Brooklyn, the killing ground, the butcher shop, the world of bizarre grotesques, of judgement, of guilt, of responsibility.
The whole thing could have come off as didactic pomposity: there are enough vague rhetorical questions about identity and responsibility to fill up a semester-long adolescent psychology course. But under David Moore's direction, none of the themes is played so hard as to alienate the audience or to be thrown away as heavy-handed moralizing. The one failure comes in the rather dubious stylistic device of breaking up the play with sporadic blackouts-as if to let the audience digest and reflect upon the lessons it has just learned.
But for the most part, the play moves quickly, the three players working in tight ensemble. The timing is crisp, not only in the dramatic moments but in the sharply sarcastic bits of humor laced throughout. Even more importantly in a production with such a small cast, the dramatic tension seldom flags, the monologues seldom ramble. There's a risk in doing a play with only three actors, but there can be a certain magic as well. Luckily, Moore has sensed that the magic of Slow Dance lies in the passions of his characters and has given them correspondingly free rein.
ALEX BROOK'S intimate set contributes to the effect by letting the audience concentrate on the intensities of the characters themselves. A candy and soda store mixing the cheapness of Store 24 and the clutter of the Starr Bookstore in the back of the Lampoon, the set keeps the audience in close to the heat of the action. The overall effect is perhaps a little jumbled, a confusion of Scooter pies and Glad bags, dusty dress-makers' models and today's newspapers. The chaos almost seems better suited to a country antique shop than a store in the heart of Brooklyn's factory district, yet it fits the puttering personality of the owner.
Into this quiet disarray bursts Randall (Jake Lamar), a schizophrenic, self-proclaimed "young gentleman of color" (this is set in 1961); an impossibly jive, cool dude who proceeds to play a tense game of thrust and parry with Mr. Glas, the store-owner, (David Reiffel). As the two are gradually getting a feel for one another, in bursts a young Jewish girl (everyone seems to burst into Slow Dance) on her way to have an abortion and about to faint.
The characters gradually fill in enough of their backgrounds to give some insights into the reasons lying behind their uniqueness, into why they stand apart from the everyday. The play-a round of monologues punctuated unevenly by repartee-depends on the inner fires of the characters to carry it through these slow moments. This is where the interwined pluses and minuses of having so few players becomes clear: while there's no excitement to be generated by a dozen jostling egos or a mass of bodies jockeying for attention, the play gives the characters enough depth and freedom to build a complex intensity in each of the characters.
Of the three, Randall clearly holds the pivotal role--and presents far and away the greatest acting challenge. Once he drops his smooth line of hip patter, Randall shiftsr rapidly through a stunningly broad range of emotions and motivations, his credo "I feel therefore I am." Depending on the moment, he must be honest, passionate, bitingly sarcastic, or so completely detatched that he can recite with a curiously third-person coldness a list of murders statistics or tales of his own bloody crimes. Lamar handles the transformations so naturally and so strikingly that the audience is taken aback, both startled and pulled along to see what's coming next. Lamar infuses the role with such power, such a sureness in the timbre of his voice, that he truly seems caught up and twisted between two worlds. His stare, even in searching the audience, somehow remains within himself. As he sweats under the lights, the audience belives him to be the genius son of a pitful prostitute, a freakish "one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind."
THE OTHER ACTORS, though facing lesser challenges, capture almost as high a pitch of intensity. The vaguely Old World accent of Mr. Glas, at first simply a deadpan foil for Randall's wit, soon begins to play vigorously against him with ironic understatement. Reiffel plays the role with all the control that it demands, sharing in the sense of rapid-fire, back-and-forth timing that make Glas's exchanges with Randall--whether dramatic or humorous--come off so well. The control holds up when it is most needed, at the play's conclusion, when Glas reveals much about his past and his reasons for seeking refuge from the harsh judgements of a real world filled with its own sort of persecution.
The entrance of the third member of this curious mismatch, a woman named Rosie (Claudia Silver), perhaps inevitably banks some of the flames that have been building, despite Moore's somewhat strained attempt at creating a melodramatic entrance. Silver carries herself with an appropriate semi-toughness, but the part offers a little less room for maneuver than do the others, a little less sense of transcending the ordinary. There's only so much Silver can do with the almost stock character of a supposedly worldly-wise girl with a heart of gold.
But the overall effect of the characters' interplay fascinates, creating an impression of richness that goes far beyond the superficialities of the average house show. For once the characters aren't so much cardboard as flesh and blood. They seem to be acting out their slow dance for their own benefit, indulging in a graceful minuet apart from the numbing coldness of the killing ground outside. Brought off with impassioned style, by its conclusion Slow Dance has been transformed into a striking danse macabre.