The first thing you notice after settling into your seat at Salt Lake Acting Company is Eddie Coe's wonderful set. It depicts the interior of an apartment in a grand old Upper West Side New York brownstone, with two large windows along the back wall and the typical furnishings you'd expect in bachelors' digs - an efficiency kitchen, discarded wooden brewery cases for end tables, mismatched sofas and chairs, a do-it-yourself bookcase, a desk and computer in one corner and just enough clutter to emphasize that the guys who inhabit this space are more into reading Variety than Better Homes & Gardens.
What happens on this set during the 2 1/2-hour program is hilarious, touching, intriguing, poignant and insightful.Lighting designer Megan McCormick's expertise allows us to follow the change in seasons outside the windows - from a hot, humid July night through a drenching fall rain, a light February snow and the budding flowers of spring.
But there are even more remarkable changes going on in the lives of Stuart, a playwright, and Del, a good friend and struggling actor, who has moved into the apartment after leaving his wife, Bonnie.
For all the brouhaha in recent years about equality of the sexes, it's still obvious that men and women are different. Maybe the gap is closing, ever so slowly, in such areas as careers and financial and legal matters, but it's been pretty well documented that men and women do function emotionally and communicate on completely different levels (many women probably wonder if men communicate at all).
Which brings us to the subject of "bonding." Back when I was a kid, bonds were those certificates sold in various denominations to help support the national military effort during World War II. But these days "bonds" refers not only to Wall Street, but to the closeness of parents and their children, and the nurturing of meaningful relationships.
There are "buddy movies" and there are "buddy plays" - dozens of the former and less than a handful of the latter.
"The Odd Couple" comes immediately to mind. Playwright Metcalfe, who was in town this past week for the regional premiere of his "White Man Dancing," noted that he is aware of the classic status of Neil Simon's comedy, but that he sees "White Man Dancing" as more of an "odd couple" for the '90s.
Metcalfe's insightful play goes far beyond the simple slob vs. neatnik slapstick of Simon's Oscar and Felix. Instead his two characters - Del and Stuart - are longtime friends who spend the nearly yearlong span of "White Man Dancing" exploring the changes in their lives and new and different relationships.
Director Nancy Borgenicht has hand-picked two terrific performers who really get into their roles. Allen Nevins, last seen at SLAC in "Hunting Cockroaches," plays Stuart, the playwright who lets his old buddy move in for a few weeks. Del, the itinerent actor, is played by David Mong.
Both Mong and Nevins are skilled actors who seem to be enjoying this experience as much as the audience.
There are some great moments in the play:
- Del relating the horrors of his Audition From Hell, delayed by a combination of wrong directions and Manhattan gridlock, then being confronted by a female casting director caked with so much makeup that "when she flutters her eyelids it's like monarch butterflies are loose in the room."
- The conversation that ensues when Del admits that, after seeing estranged wife Bonnie in the subway station, they ended up in an afternoon tryst at her apartment.
- Stuart's irate frustration when six pages of his most recent play get lost somewhere in his personal computer.
- The hostility that erupts when Stuart discovers Del has been involved with another woman, despite the fact that Bonnie is pregnant.
- The hilarious sequence in which Stuart gives Del a demonstration of what he's learning during the Lamaze classes. (Bonnie lets Stuart pinch-hit for Del, because she and Del are still on the outs, despite the brief liaison that resulted in the pregnancy.)
Stuart, playing Lamaze coach, has Del assume the position of a pregnant woman on the floor.
"Do you feel nurtured?" Stuart asks.
"I feel like a stranded beagle," Del replies.
Things get rather awkward for Del when Stuart gets caught up in euphoria of Bonnie's pending motherhood.
While Del and Stuart are the only two characters ever seen on stage, the presence of the women in their lives is always apparent.
Metcalfe is one of the country's brightest young playwrights and screenwriters (he wrote "Cousins" and "Jacknife" for the screen and did uncredited work on both "Pretty Woman" and "Arachnophobia").
The situations and conversations he sets up for his two characters in "White Man Dancing" are packed with both humor and sensitivity. And it's a tour de force for the exceptional talents of Nevins (seen too rarely on local stages) and Mong, who is certainly welcome to visit and act in his home state more frequently.
"White Man Dancing" is a witty, sensitive and thoughtful comedy that deserves a wide audience. There's some profanity, but it's certainly not gratuitous.
- A FREE READING of another play by Metcalfe, "Strange Snow," which was the basis for the 1989 film "Jacknife" (Robert De Niro and Ed Harris) will be presented on Monday, Feb. 4, at 7 p.m. at Salt Lake Acting Company.