It's a testament to the smart construction and sentimental appeal of Richard Alfieri's teary comedy "Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks" that even a sputtering production can easily earn a standing ovation.
Sputtering is putting it kindly for the touring production of the play that opened Sept. 14 in Shea's 710 Theatre, starring Loretta Swit (known to many as Major Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan on the television show "M*A*S*H*") and Los Angeles-based actor David Engel.
When Swit is on, she is as charming and engaging as you could hope for. But too often to ignore during the opening night performance, she searched for her lines to no avail and resorted to half-realized improvisations. Engel, whose performance was far less convincing but much better memorized, often had to swoop in and save the day.
Those who can get past these cringe-inducing moments, however, will find much to like in this candy-coated play that explores the relationship between an aging widow and her younger, gay dance instructor. These are fully formed characters, each wounded and defensive in their own distinct ways, each struggling to find common ground with one another.
Bit by bit, across a series of vignettes, their initial antipathy toward one another fades into friendship and finally into something more meaningful. And the viewer's cynicism, if he had any walking into the theater, also abates as each character reveals more about the events that led them to their state of loneliness.
What the production lacks, due to being under-rehearsed or just miscast, is a genuine chemistry that would lend Alfieri's best-written exchanges the weight they deserve. This has the effect of amplifying the sentimentality of the script, which comes to seem false by the end of the evening.
Because of its awkward execution here, six more rehearsals would be more to the point.
2 stars (out of four)
"Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks." Performances are through Sept. 17 in Shea's 710 Theatre, 710 Main St. Tickets are $44. Call 847-1410 or visit sheas.org.