They shot this horse before, didn’t they? “Marathon Dancing,” the latest presentation of what the En Garde Arts group calls “site specific” theater, is the most conventional and disappointing of the talented company’s recent efforts. The title says it all, conjuring up images of Depression Era couples, desperate, exhausted and dancing, dancing, dancing for cash. Toss in a sleazy emcee and a sadistic floor judge, and the ballroom is set for some very familiar drama.
The ballroom itself, of course, is the central star of this production, although not nearly as interesting or quirky a star as the sites of other En Garde offerings. Built in 1909, the gilded grand ballroom of the Masonic Hall in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood makes an attractive and appropriate setting for the play, but it lacks the startling novelty of such “found” sites as the ghostly piers along the Hudson River that served as backdrop for last season’s “Orestes,” or the decrepit nursing home facade that lent an eeriness to 1992’s “Another Person is a Foreign Country.”
If the setting is a notch below those previous sites, the play itself is even lower. Laura Harrington’s story of marathon dancers seems like little more than a watered-down version of Sydney Pollack’s 1969 film “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?,” without any of the insight, originality or immediacy that movie brought to its subject.
Harrington’s characters aren’t of the Depression so much as they are of the mythological backlog the Depression has spawned. In between the existential dancing and mini-psychodramas that unfold, various cliched characters step to a spotlight to relay their hard-luck stories: A Tom Joad-type union worker on the lam for killing “a copper” during a harvesters’ strike, an ex-boxer guilt-wracked for throwing an unintended fatal punch, a World War I vet abandoned by his government, a Dutch chanteuse who warbles “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” etc.
As if life and eight weeks of nearly non-stop dancing weren’t enough to deal with, these down-and-outers must contend with various humiliations dreamed up by a greedy emcee and his cruel floor judge. Audience must contend with some 20 musical numbers — all period songs — that the cast performs with professional flare but that slow the proceedings to tediousness. When the tote board indicates “Hour 843” one passingly wonders whether this lengthy one-act is being performed in real time.
The only real surprise “Marathon Dancing” offers is the realization that director Anne Bogart is presenting this timeworn tale and its two-dimensional characters with a straight face. Her usual penchant for the unconventional is nowhere to be found, as if she were as uninspired by the material as her audience surely will be.