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Lorenzo Pisoni and JoBeth Williams
in Last Dance
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Charlotte, the focal character of Marsha Norman's shockingly deficient Last Dance, wants to be alone -- as did Greta Garbo with such notoriety. Garbo apologists have always maintained, of course, that the Swedish star's actual request was to be left alone, which is not exactly the same thing. Well, Charlotte (JoBeth Williams) wants that, too. And the tactics that the Savannah expatriate novelist and sometime poet employs to get what she wants are what fill the oh-so-long 90 minutes that the piece takes to unravel -- er, to unfold.

Over the course of one sunny summer day at Charlotte's villa in the south of France, she decides that Cabot Gray (Lorenzo Pisoni), an aspiring young poet with whom she's been sleeping, would be better off becoming, say, an architect and tying the knot with Georgeanne (Heather Goldenhersh), another visiting wannabe poet. Charlotte's also convinced that her sojourning Savannah swain, professor of herpetology Randall DellaMar (David Rasche), would have a brighter future were he to forget about her and marry Georgeanne's mom, who's evidently been panting after him for years.

To that end, the determined Charlotte prepares a few simple meals -- lamb and young broccoli "with a garnish of some sort" at one repast -- before, during, and after which she natters on until the others believe that she means what she says about living solo. They come to understand her devotion to a dying friend called Frances, or Bunny, who is something of a role model for Charlotte. Accordingly they acquiesce to her plans for them -- even though, initially, they all rub each other the wrong way. Yes, they heed their adamant friend despite the fact that doing so makes no sense to them or to anyone else who might question the wisdom of deciding to marry, as Cab and Georgeanne do, after less than a day's acquaintance.

"I don't know how this happened," Cab (as his intimates call him) declares to Georgeanne when he discovers that within a matter of hours, if not minutes, he's fallen in love with her. "I don't either," Georgeanne replies to the man who only a short time before had been begging for Charlotte's hand. But the audience knows how it happened: Norman has contrived it in order to make her far-too-late-in-coming point that everyone has the right to decide how they will live and, if their preference is to be solitary, that preference must be respected. (The title of the play presumably refers to the figurative dance card that Charlotte intends to retire.)

What is less clear to those who attend Last Dance is how this sitcom pilot came to be produced on a Manhattan stage with as much loving care as it has been, including an enticing set by Loy Arcenas, warm lighting by Duane Schuler, and perky music by Jason Robert Brown that occasionally sounds like the old soundtrack of My Little Margie. Were Norman's name not on the Playbill title page, it's a good bet that no one with any knowledge of creditable contemporary playwrights would guess that the esteemed woman had had anything to do with this piece, which feels more like the dream of a Sophie Newcombe belle with more talent than experience.

It's also a mystery why Manhattan Theatre Club artistic director Lynne Meadow not only agreed to produce the play but to direct it, which she has done as well as possible under the circumstances. After all, this is a script in which Georgeanne, entering in scene two carrying flowers, says to Randall, "Sometimes I think I would have been so much happier had I been born a lilac." (And we all thought it was a scream when Katharine Hepburn, also entering with bouquet in Stage Door's play-within-a-movie, intoned, "The calla lilies are in bloom again.")

Last Dance is a play during which characters are required every so often to read aloud their poems, or someone else's, and pretend to be touched by them. These prosaic outpourings beg the question: Are they to be admired or disdained? Charlotte does eventually allow that neither Cab nor Georgeanne are poets yet and may never be. What was her first clue? Cab scribbles one verse that includes the line, "I want to love you right up to that door I come to sometimes in the loose mad glory of our love." One of Georgeanne's ruminations goes, "And so I pray the ground will tilt and tip me over this fine stable edge." And what about the names Norman gives the men: Cabot Gray, Randall DellaMar. They sound like monikers Joan Collins might have weighed for her novels but rejected.

Incidentally: With Pisoni cast as Cab, there's a showbiz in-joke in play that few audiences members could be expected to get: This athletic fellow was Orlando in the Public Theater's recent production of Shakespeare's As You Like It, a romp in which the character posts poems on trees for the worldly wise Rosalind to discover. In Shakespeare's realm, Orlando's giddy doggerel is mocked; in Norman's realm, Cab's isn't but could be.

Heather Goldenhersh and JoBeth Williams in Last Dance
(Photo © Joan Marcus)

In the acting department, JoBeth Williams gives the kind of unaffected and affecting performance that is familiar from her movie roles. She is, however, required to wear an ill-fitting fishnet sweater that costume designer Ann Roth picked out for her, perhaps because there's a good deal of talk about a fisherman called Jean-Luc with whom Charlotte is also supposedly dallying. Maybe Roth wanted to strengthen the fishing theme. Lorenzo Pisoni's Cab is deemed beautiful by both Charlotte and Georgeanne, and the actor -- with his dark hair, big arms, and chiseled torso -- fills the bill. But while he's perfectly adequate here as a labile lover, he doesn't have the opportunities he had as the above-mentioned Orlando to demonstrate how well he could fit the kind of roles that Kevin Kline played when he was younger.

David Rasche is okay as the supercilious Randall. (Is the fact that the character's such a snake related to his work as a herpetologist? Is Norman suggesting that one becomes in life what one does for a living?) At the press preview I attended, Rasche stumbled over a number of lines -- as did Williams, for that matter -- which could be interpreted not as failure to learn them so much as resistance to saying them. Heather Goldenhersh had her dialogue down but spoke it in a curiously chompy manner as if, somewhere inside her, Barbara Walters was arguing with Gilda Radner. Goldenhersh has the kind of performance cutes that people either eat up with a spoon or flinch from as they do chalk scrapping across slate. All four actors were apparently coached in their Southern accents with modest success by Tom Monich.

At various points in Last Dance, three bouquets are brought on stage and carefully arranged by Charlotte or Georgeanne. These colorful blooms, courtesy of Steven de la Torre at Lobby Flowers, are artificial -- but no more artificial than the play itself.

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