A desiccated piece of Florida dinner-theater driftwood appears to have beached itself at the Belasco Theater. The onrushing tide of critical opprobrium should see it off again shortly. Six weeks would be a generous estimate for the Broadway lifespan of “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks” — this turkey, like so many others, is not likely to survive Thanksgiving.
A two-hander set in a condo in St. Petersburg, Fla., Richard Alfieri’s play is a subpar subplot from an episode of “The Golden Girls” stretched to interminable length. It’s a musty relic from the days when audiences looked not to the tube but to Broadway for comfortably tame comedy mixed with sentimental mush.
The setup: Lonely old widow hires brash young dance instructor to teach her a few moves. What she really needs is a little companionship, of course. Their frosty professional relationship evolves instantly into what is presumably meant to be a touching friendship, amid a numbing barrage of wisecracks set to the clinical beat of a TV laughtrack.
The play is divided into six scenes, one for the swing, the tango, the waltz, etc. But aside from the divergent dance steps, there is little to differentiate them. Each proceeds along the same formulaic path. He enters, feisty. She’s cool. He takes offense, blurts out something testy (calling her a “tight-assed old biddy”). She is outraged. They exchange insults. He threatens to storm out. She relents. He relents. They exchange emotional revelations. (Her husband was a bigot; he’s gay; her daughter died young; he lost a lover to AIDS.) They dance. End of scene.
Repeat five more times, with minor variations.
The broken-record rhythm only enhances the play’s synthetic quality, as do labored and often stale jokes. When he reveals he’s gay, she wonders why he stayed “in the pantry” for so long. When he says her back is “pretty as a strudel,” she zings back, “Yeah, pasty and flaky.” The play’s feeblest contrivance may be a running gag — make that a wheezing gag — about the cranky dame downstairs who calls to complain about the noise. But there’s nothing fresh here. His heartfelt soliloquies about his tortured life as an oppressed minority are well past their sell-by date, and the late-coming revelation that she’s terminally ill is altogether desperate.
As directed with a bruising lack of sensitivity by Arthur Allen Seidelman, the play does not even provide a comfortable vehicle for the evening’s performers. Mark Hamill, still best known, of course, as Luke Skywalker, appears to be aiming for impish charm but lands somewhere in the vicinity of obnoxious. His abrasive perf only increases the off-puttingly shrill tone of the play’s recurring combative sequences. (And why on earth didn’t someone at least cut the line about his character being Italian? Hamill is about as Italian as Oscar Mayer baloney.) Bergen is more restrained and occasionally affecting, but her performance, too, is often strained and lacking in warmth. She does, at least, cut a lovely figure in a pretty array of evening wear from costume designer Helen Butler. (This Baptist preacher’s wife apparently made regular excursions to Bergdorf Goodman.)
A more graceful production might have smoothed over some of the writing’s coarseness (David Hyde Pierce and Uta Hagen were well received in the play’s world premiere, also directed by Seidelman, at the Geffen Playhouse), but it’s hard to know how to take the edge off laugh lines that find the lovably naughty dance instructor charming his elderly client by praising her “fuck-me” dress and calling her a “seductive slut.” Ugh.