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The Seduction of Edgar Degas: The First Dancer

There are good plays and there are bad plays, and then there are problematic plays by people who deserve a break and may yet become good playwrights. Le Wilhelm writes plays of the last kind.

Cast:
Benedicte - Jessica Mazo/ Jessica Bishop Marie-August - Colleen Summa Copine - Gabrielle Rosen Cleo - Lauren Ford/Jessica Mazo Petit Pois - Tony White/Alan Salsbury Edgar Degas - Mark A Knich/Dustin C. Burrell Mme. Crosner - Kirsten Walsh/ Valerie Austin Mlle. Eugenie Fiocre - Kristin Carter/Jennifer Perrotta Pierre Benayoun - Bob Manus

There are good plays and there are bad plays, and then there are problematic plays by people who deserve a break and may yet become good playwrights. Le Wilhelm writes plays of the last kind. He’s come a long way from last summer’s unfortunate “The Hanging of Razor Brown,” and he’s been around for ages, toiling away at productions in upstairs theaters and basement theaters, mostly with young actors still getting their sea legs. It’s a noble vocation, and if there were A’s for effort in the theater, Wilhelm would certainly get one.

But there aren’t. “The Seduction of Edgar Degas: The First Dancer” is bloated and unfocused, with embarrassing performances and extended monologues about how it feels to be arty that do everything but sing you to sleep. What makes the play worth seeing for interested producers (if not for the general public) is a spark of human interest in the supporting characters that, given the right fuel, could be fanned into blazing, compelling melodrama.

Like many writers of historical plays, Wilhelm misidentifies his subject, or at least his work’s most interesting conflict. The center of the production is the torturous discussion of art between painter Degas (the uncomfortable-looking Mark A. Knich, in the perf reviewed) and his subject, dancer Eugenie Fiocre (Kristin Carter, energetic but miscast). The center of the play, by contrast, is the harsh existence led by the incongruously delicate dancers Degas so admires.

These characters are mostly relegated to window dressing, but when one of them gets a chance to speak, it’s as if Wilhelm has turned on a light in a dark room. Take Cleo (Lauren Ford), for example, the least worldly of the crew, who finds herself knocked up and considering a coat hanger abortion — a really lousy comeuppance for no less trivial a sin than needing a couple extra francs.

Plenty of playwrights — especially young ones — devote long stretches of dialogue to the discussion of physical violence, usually by having evil characters pontificate about the depths to which they’ve sunk. Wilhelm is doing something much more interesting here, contrasting Cleo’s sweet demeanor with the horrible thing she’s thinking about doing to herself. It’s a moment — and there are others like it here — that needs to be planted, watered and farmed.

Wilhelm’s plays will doubtless be around for a while, given the rate at which he writes, and judging by the qualitative differences between “Razor” and “Seduction,” he seems to be on an uphill slope. This drama needs someone other than the playwright in the director’s chair, and it needs to be about 45 minutes shorter, but there’s enough here to warrant a look at his next play.

The Seduction of Edgar Degas: The First Dancer

59E59 Theaters; 50 seats; $20 top

Production: A Love Creek presentation of a play in two acts written and directed by Le Wilhelm.

Creative: Set, Viola Bradford; costumes, Cynthia Winstead; lighting, Chris Johnson; production stage manager, Steven Barrett. Opened Aug. 17, 2008. Reviewed Aug 14. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast: Benedicte - Jessica Mazo/ Jessica Bishop Marie-August - Colleen Summa Copine - Gabrielle Rosen Cleo - Lauren Ford/Jessica Mazo Petit Pois - Tony White/Alan Salsbury Edgar Degas - Mark A Knich/Dustin C. Burrell Mme. Crosner - Kirsten Walsh/ Valerie Austin Mlle. Eugenie Fiocre - Kristin Carter/Jennifer Perrotta Pierre Benayoun - Bob Manus

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