The St. Bart's Players, now in its 70th-anniversary season as a community theater, mounts its productions on the spacious stage in the well-appointed hall of St. Bartholemew's Church on Park Avenue. Very few Off-Off Broadway facilities in the City can match this space, as well as such amenities as location, lighting, and the broad support of an extensive production and publicity team. The Players' latest production was Stepping Out, by Richard Harris. This was a perfect location for the play, which tells of nine women and one man who attend a weekly tap-dance lesson at a church hall and prepare to put on a show. They all seem to have two left feet, besides a whole bundle of problems and neuroses, and the only suspense in this play is wondering whether they will be able to tap dance well when they eventually perform their dance at the end of the play.
Admirers of the British film The Full Monty and the musical A Chorus Line know it is hard to resist rooting for performers to make the grade when the chips are down. The St. Bart's cast gave it all they had but, sadly, the play is so slight, the character exploration so superficial, and the characters themselves so stereotyped that it was hard to really care what happened to these people, about whom the audience gets to know very little. Micky and Judy, where are you now that we need you? All are escaping from unhappy marriages or relationships. They include the tough Cockney girl; the snobbish, compulsive middle-class wife; the unhappy dance teacher who is furious (we don't know why) because she is pregnant; the wise-cracking West Indian woman; the unhappy Eve-Ardenlike wisecracking redhead; the shrewish old accompanist; the motorcycling little blond; a sensitive nurse; a young wife whose husband, for unknown reasons, beats her and breaks her arm; and the nerdy, unhappy man. There are the ingredients for an interesting, touching, and funny play here; alas, Harris has not written it.
The troupe was to be congratulated for holding the play together as well as they did on the night it was reviewed. Earlier in the day, the actor who played the accompanist had a very serious family emergency and was replaced by "a good trouper," Mary Ellen Conroy, on book. Director Brian Feehan did fairly well with this play, and quite a bit better with his dancers, who did look very good at the end. The show often got swallowed up by its location and needed much more belt and pace throughout, and there was some unevenness in the performances. Finally, it was hard to see why the play could not have been set in a New York church hall. Everyone could have relaxed and concentrated on their roles instead of trying so hard to deliver authentic English accents, which sometimes were difficult to understand.
The best acting was by Kelly Ford, sympathetic and believable as the shy, battered wife; Jill Conklin as the insecure wisecracker; and Susie Piturro as the crude Cockney. Helen Nestor, the dance teacher, was confident in leading the troupe and danced well but had some trouble when required to explode in anger. Also featuring: Susan Carlino, Rita Nash, and Richard Van Slyke. Costumes, by Mira Goldberg, were splendid. (Lighting, Richard Tatum; Kimberley Wadsworth, sound.)
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Copyright 1998 Dudley Stone