Add Clare Barron to the list of provocative young playwrights who are exploring the boundaries and expanding the horizons of contemporary drama.
Dance Nation, at Playwrights Horizons, begins with the sounds of tapping feet behind an overlit front curtain. Shades of A Chorus Line? Well, yes; A Chorus Line, it turns out, is lurking in the wings of Barron’s fulsome imagination. The curtain splits to reveal a stage full of dimly lit dancers in sailor suits—movie-style sailors in white, with blue collar-bibs embossed with stars—shuffling through an inexpert tap dance out of Anything Goes. Something is off about the sizes and shapes, though, and about the talent of these dancers, too. As this eyebrow-raising opening number ends, the upstage dancer is revealed startled and collapsed center stage, blood gushing from her leg. Clearly not real blood, and clearly not gushing; smeared atop her trouser-thigh, rather, like globbed-up paint. Until, finally, a stagehand unceremoniously and literally drags her off.
Which is enough to convince us, within three minutes, that the playwright is intent on taking us someplace where we have rarely if ever been, and that she possesses an innate theatricality that suggests that she will pull it off, all right. She does. At the same time, the playwright interweaves her very funny play with topics that some might find out of bounds, in the same manner that audiences in 1962 might have complained that Edward Albee went too far. Barron’s point might well be that well-intentioned, progressive dramatists sometimes must go too far. Yes, I’ll amuse and entertain you, she seems to be saying; but be prepared to be challenged as well.
The playwright, whose local productions include You Got Older (Soho Rep, 2014) and I’ll Never Love Again (Bushwick Starr, 2016), seems content to present a group of pre-teen girls rehearsing for a dance competition, dealing with their friends and their lives in an open and direct manner. They’re at the moment when, as Barron says, “they still think anything is possible” and before life in contemporary society convinces them that it isn’t.
She does so in a thoroughly unconventional manner: her seven preteens are played by a group of actors ranging into their late 60s. This prevents the built-in issue of watching the play through a prism of personable 20-something actresses trying to pass as sprites; it also adds an intentional overlay of mortality. Are the cast members supposed to be 12, or are they wizened souls looking back at the way they were, through the ghostly prism of who they became? Which can resonate strongly with the onlooking audience.
This seems to be precisely what Barron is trying to do. She gives us a wildly funny comedy, yes, but with a sharply nagging core. She also provides a fair dose of locker room nudity, which we have never seen in a play about 12-year-old girls—played by older actors, yes—and which is emblematic of the playwright’s times-are-a-changin’ manner.
At more than a few moments, you will likely compare Dance Nation to Sarah DeLappe’s excellent The Wolves. The soccer team, in the earlier play, is presented in earnest, with a cast that looks close enough to authentic; thus, we feel for them (characters and performers). By presenting us with a wildly non-realistic dance team, though, Barron can slather on layers of fun, satire and incisive social commentary.
The wildly nontraditional casting works well, with director Lee Sunday Evans (of the LCT3 Bull in a China Shop and the Bushwick Starr’s [Porto]) perfectly illuminating the lives of the characters and providing the amusingly artless choreography as well. The cast is universally fine, with special contributions—thanks not only to the performers but to the monologues they are handed—from Eboni Booth, as Zuzu, the second-best dancer, who takes control with a speech about illness; Dina Shihabi as Amina, the one future star in the troupe, whose oncoming maturity is key to the play; and Lucy Taylor as Ashlee, who seems hidden away until a startling monologue of self-awareness (“sometimes I wonder what would happen if I really went for it”). Providing much of the comedy—and, as the girls approach womanhood, the unspoken hint of an undercurrent of threat—is Thomas Jay Ryan as “Dance Teacher Pat.”
Along with such fulsome praise comes a teaspoon of what is intended as constructive criticism. The play, from my seat, seemed to go on a bit too long. Not in terms of time, which is manageable at an intermissionless 1:45; but Barron includes some highly relevant material which—alas—might not quite benefit the play. Some well-written late passages illuminate and rather incisively explain the play, yes; but there are times when this is not necessarily beneficial. It can be self-defeating to keep us in our seats for an epilogue highlighting authorial points which the writing already makes expertly clear.
Yes, parts of Dance Nation might well prove challenging to some in the audience. Barron’s 12-year-olds barge into discussions of sexuality and body functions which polite playgoers might not have heard before, onstage or off. And that blood in the opening sailor-tap is not random, we will learn; while the dramatic literature is filled with stage blood going back to the Greeks, Barron might well be forging new ground here. The author seems to be saying that after all these centuries of “men’s” plays, maybe it’s time that we get a different and more realistic viewpoint. And that, precisely, is what Barron has put on stage.
Dance Nation opened May 8, 2018, at Playwrights Horizons and runs through July 1. Tickets and information: playwrightshorizons.org