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Polly Bergen and Mark Hamill in
Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Women's fiction is still a mighty force in the market. Publishers paying big bucks to Danielle Steele, Maeve Binchy, Nora Roberts, Robert James Waller, Nicholas Sparks and that ilk will tell you as much, and they'll also point to the widespread appeal of such chick lit authors as Helen Fielding. Women's movies are in somewhat shorter supply, and when a flick intended to appeal to that segment of the moviegoing public is released -- e.g., Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood -- there's always speculation that, if it doesn't draw crowds, that'll be curtains for the genre.

Women's plays are even fewer in number, for reasons that probably have to do with current theater economics; yet such plays do exist. There are even sub-genres, as is made clear by Richard Alfieri's Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, a comedy-drama that falls into the "Plays for Women of a Certain Age" bin -- the one where ladies, specifically widows, are assured that they've still got a lotta livin' to do. In Alfieri's dose of dramaturgical Geritol, Lily Harrison (Polly Bergen) retains Michael Minetti (Mark Hamill) to teach her the ballroom basics at $50 a throw so she can pep up the lonely life she's living in St. Petersburg, Florida. Lily resides in a spacious contemporary flat graced by scenic designer Roy Christopher with a view of white-capped, Gulf of Mexico water that looks like one of those electric wall hangings you see in photo shop windows.

When the woman of a certain age sitting directly behind me at Six Dance Lessons noticed that I was taking notes, she poked me on the shoulder and said, "You're reviewing, aren't you?" I wasn't quick-witted enough to dissemble; after acknowledging that, indeed, I was writing for dollars, I had the strong impression that everything the woman subsequently vouchsafed to her companion was spoken in a slightly louder tone for my benefit. Her attempt to affect my reaction -- not the first ever made -- was disconcerting. But my ears did perk up when, as the play was reaching its denouement, she commented: "It's a sweet play but I don't think it'll make it."

She was half right: Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks probably won't make it, but the two-hander can't really be called "a sweet play." On the contrary, it's a sour piece of work that eventually becomes saccharine. The central problem is that Lily Harrison and Michael Minetti are unpleasant company. Alfieri undoubtedly figured that, if this dancing instructor and his student liked each other at first sight, there would be nowhere for the play to go. So he has them fray each other's nerves from the minute that Michael rings Lily's bell and shouts through the closed door that he's "the dangerous stranger." Far too often thereafter, he's threatening to leave or she's threatening to toss him out. At one point, Lily asks why the two of them are following "our usual pattern of lying and arguing." Michael replies, "Because that's what we do! Every relationship has a foundation. That's ours."

It's a bad foundation on which to base a play, made worse by the fact that just about everything that befalls these two can be seen coming from light years away. When the stern, retired school teacher Lily claims to be 68, everyone but the slowest ticket buyer knows that she's knocking a few years off the total. When the wildly gesturing Michael says that he's married, even the dimmest patron will realize that he's not only single but as gay as a pink hat. When Lily picks up the dance steps immediately, only the truly backward will not realize that she doesn't need the lessons at all. That the two will end up staunch friends is a foregone conclusion, with dance as a metaphor of compatibility. And when they get cozy enough with each other to reveal some unpleasant facts of their pasts, the effect isn't so much one of characters rich in dimension slowly exposing themselves as it is of a calculating playwright pulling out the sympathy stops. (By the way: Michael begins by teaching Lily swing dancing, then moves on to the tango and, eventually, to the fox trot. But wouldn't any dance teacher who knows what he's doing start out with the fox trot and move on to more complicated dances afterward? Just wondering.)

Dance partners Bergen and Hamill
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Alfieri does loft the occasional pithy line. "One way or another, you always pay for sex," Michael insists when Lily is surprised to learn that he has hired hustlers. But the author's main asset is his taste in music: Each of the play's seven scenes is given over to a different dance, and the range of Songs to Give Dance Lessons By is eclectic. While Polly Bergen and Mark Hamill twirl to Kay Cole's easy-going choreography, Alfieri calls for the Andrews Sisters' "Bei Mir Mist Du Schön," Hugo Winterhalter's version of Leroy Anderson's "Blue Tango," Johann Strauss's "Adele's Laughing Song," Tony Bennett's "The Best is Yet to Come," Eydie Gorme and the Trio Los Panchos doing "La Ultima Noche," Chuck Berry's treatment of the Beach Boys' "Surfin' USA," and the Beach Boys themselves crooning "God Only Knows." All of these are great choices and each seems to have some bearing on the scene in which it's featured. At fade-out, as Lily and Michael are stepping lightly with a Gulf of Mexico sunset behind them, the Beach Boys are reiterating, "God only know what I'd be without you." Kudos to sound designer Philip G. Allen.

Qualified kudos also to Polly Bergen and Mark Hamill for filling the roles that Uta Hagen and David Hyde Pierce took on when the play was tried out at the Geffen Playhouse. (Hamill was Michael opposite Rue McClanahan in a subsequent production at the Coconut Grove Playhouse.) Bergen is completely devoid of makeup in her opening scene, or seems to be; she then becomes increasingly soigné, especially in the stylish widow's weeds that costumer Helen Butler has given her. Lily credits her look to Max Factor but longtime Bergen fans may wonder if she hasn't also dipped into her Oil of the Turtle supply, since she was the one who marketed that stuff.

Cutting a decorous figure on the dance area, Bergen humanizes the role she's playing -- which is more than can be said for Hamill. Granted, Michael is a trying guy, prepared to fly off the handle at everything and prone to tell mirthless jokes. Though Hamill is animated throughout, he brings little charm to a part that needs all the charm it can get, particularly since Michael shows up in a couple of garish outfits that designer Butler has gone over-the-top on. Arthur Allan Seidelman might have helped Hamill strike a more effective balance between obnoxious and lovable, but he has failed to do so.

By the end of Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, Lily Harrison has gotten her money's worth, which is not true of those who've paid to watch her get it.

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