by Allan Knee
Music by Jeffrey Lunden
Directed by Kelly Robinson
Starring Cynthia Dale and Geordie Johnson
at the Winter Garden Theatre

Reviewed by Joel Greenberg

Syncopation is an ersatz little play that wants us to believe in the power of dance to release people from their mundane and corseted lives. Borrowing heavily from a variety of stage and film cliches, it tells the story of an Italian lass and a Jewish fellow, in the years preceding World War One. But aside from one jarring reference to the Triangle Shirt Factory fire (and the jarring note might be due to the fact that nowhere else are we required to register time, place or, for that matter, logic) the writers (Allan Knee/script, Jeffrey Lunden/music) haven't lavished much of their time on research. Instead, they seem preoccupied with a paint-by-numbers approach to stagecraft.

Henry Ribolow (Geordie Johnson) places an ad in the newspaper for a ballroom dancing partner. Anna Bianchi (Cynthia Dale) answers the ad. She arrives at his sixth floor walkup studio, reticent to the point of suggesting urgent attention from a psychiatric team and a good chiropractor. (She can walk fine, but it appears that when she tries the most basic of dance steps, her body seizes up -- a cross between Laura Wingfield and the Tin Man.) She also is a spunky gal, given to direct responses and no-nonsense behaviour. (A psychiatric team is also required to deal with her abject fear of physical contact, so extreme that her face is a monosyllabic chart of terror.)

Playwright Knee has affected an epistolary style of continuity. The twosome reveal their thoughts to us in a series of spoken diary entries -- an homage, perhaps, to "Les Liaisons Dangereuses", "84 Charing Cross Road" or "The Diary of Anne Frank" And these somewhat confessional bridge pieces are directed to the audience in a rather unfocused manner. I say, if you want to speak to us, then look at us rather than through us as you speak. The front-and-centre approach is also used throughout as the characters imagine the fourth wall to be a row of mirrors. However, the now-it's-a-mirror-now-it's-not device serves only to expose the play's frail pretenses.

We are asked to accept that Bianchi is capable of moving from a world of Catholic repression, a rigid family, and a fiancé whose utter aridity spells future misery into a world of liberated women and unorthodox free-spiritedness. And we are asked to accept this only because the writer tells us to. He shows us nothing that even begins to explain that his young woman has the capacity to grow beyond her painfully proscribed world, let alone the courage to overstep social norms. And yes, this is a romantic comedy, but that genre doesn't include a license to perpetrate fraud on either characters or an audience.

For his part, Ribolow is spared the torture of growing beyond himself because he remains in the studio to entertain a number of potential dance partners. They don't exist for us to see, but the writers have manufactured what is referred to as a 'tour de force': in this play, that consists of the actor performing several dance interludes as though he were partnering a parade of freakish Sisters of Terpsichore.

As for the production itself, I saw one of the final preview performances, but it has arrived after its initial run at the Manitoba Theatre Centre. The setting, designed by Victoria Wallace, suggests the Lower East Side without ever evoking what that means. But the play requires the characters to move out of the studio and onto a train, go to the ocean and onto a boat. These scenic shifts are not easy to accept because there's too much movement of scenery at the same time that there is just too little scenery to move. The design, like the play itself, lacks character.

The actors struggle to breathe life into what looks and sounds DOA. Affecting a very bad accent, Johnson works himself into a lather to convince us that he is a Polish American. He is given to expansive physical gestures, his favourite being a full-bodied lean against any furniture that will support his weight. Johnson is a fine actor, but this role works only to reveal what he is incapable of achieving. Cynthia Dale foregoes dialect, sounding more like an immigrant than her partner in the process. She is given to showing her emotions through facial expressions of the stock variety and her vocal patterns are monotonous. She speaks quickly when she is nervous and she raises her voice when she has something important to say. Dale is not helped by a script that includes a monologue or two of the 'let me tell you a story that will explain what my dialogue cannot' variety.

The performers appear to enjoy each other's company, but that's only a guess. Nothing in their relationship onstage generates the tension and dynamic that a two-hander of this sort must have in order to transcend the material itself. That said, it's also possible that nothing could breathe life into this corpse.

The play ends with yet another theatrical invocation: the bride runs from the altar on her wedding day because she knows that the man she has spent the last two hours with is the preferred choice over the fiancé we have heard of but never met. (The Graduate, now playing up the street at the Canon Theatre, may be guilty of plot leaching.) Emboldened by her dramatic departure from the church, she reveals that she is wearing a beaded ballroom gown beneath the wedding outfit. She cannot marry the safe choice because, she tells us, she loves to dance. And so Bianchi and Ribolow begin what I expected would be a fantasy dance come true. Well, wrong again, because they start to dance, chandeliers are revealed -- but left unlit -- and the lights fade. Not exactly Astaire-Rogers or Vernon and Irene Castle.

Syncopation, its title as mysterious as its reason for being co-produced by the Mirvish Company and MTC, may do well on the dinner theatre circuit, but there has to be something far more worthwhile to produce in the major theatre category.

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