Characters have monologues detailing their fates. Biographical data is imparted irregularly. Plentiful for some and scant or not all for others. There is one boy in the group who is just there without any explanation. Initially his presence is confusing as perhaps he is supposed to be a girl in this quirky universe but his gender gradually is made clear.
Ms. Barron’s conception is more of an agenda driven fantastical tract rather than a well-crafted play with a cohesive plot. Her tone is of exaggeration and artifice with mannered dialogue that is intended to be hilarious yet thoughtful. A brief gag about A Chorus Line and a reference to the actual Telsey & Company Casting are some of the smug inside humor tossed in.
The play has a distinguished pedigree as this world premiere production is presented by Playwrights Horizons and it was awarded the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in 2017. That prestigious honor “is given annually to recognize women who have written works of outstanding quality for the English-speaking theatre.”
“We recommend this show for ages 15 and up due to strong language and locker room nudity” is the accurate disclaimer.
Performers are seen in various stages of undress while changing into their dancewear. Menstruation is graphically depicted. Masturbation is simulated by one cast member with a pillow. Profanity is frequently used. There’s an analysis of male circumcision. Vociferous rants include a major battle cry extolling Pussy Power.
Most of the action takes place in the studio run by the imperious male Dance Teacher Pat. Rehearsals are stressful as the troupe is on a cycle of challenges. The Legacy Talent Competition in Philadelphia, StarPower USA in Akron, Ohio and the Boogie Down Grand Prix in Lanoka Harbor, New Jersey. If they win each of these then it’s on to Tampa Bay, Florida, for the main event where agents and dance world experts are in attendance.
Dance Teacher Pat has devised a choreographic work based on the life of Mahatma Gandhi to showcase the group’s gifts. Along the way of their quest there are rivalries, dramas and enlightenment.
Director and choreographer Lee Sunday Evans faithfully presents Barron’s alienating vision with flair. The unsettling opening number is a furious sailor suit tap dancing sequence climaxing with an injured dancer revealing a bloody knee. This and the other choreographed portions are technically accomplished but executed with chilliness. The dramatic ones are strident. Ms. Evans does strive to bring visual interest and steady pacing to the labored one hour and 45-minute presentation.
The talented, likeable and distinctive company of Purva Bedi, Eboni Booth, Camila Canó-Flaviá, Ellen Maddow, Dina Shihabi, Lucy Taylor and Ikechukwu Ufomadu all offer vigorous characterizations as the young dancers.
With the aid of wigs and costume changes Christina Rouner nicely portrays several different mothers. Thomas Jay Ryan’s performance as the calculating martinet Dance Teacher Pat is delightfully deadpan in the mode of one of Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries.
Scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado’s dance studio is realistically drab and through the clever use of curtains and placement of furniture new locales are swiftly displayed. Most striking is an outdoors setting of grass and clouds in the sky.
Barbara Samuels’ lighting design starkly conveys the stylized dimension with muted hues. Brandon Wolcott’s sound design intensely renders the plentiful and crucial musical interludes. Dancewear, teenage fashions and adult garments are all artfully realized by Ásta Bennie Hostetter’s crisp costume design.
The Lifetime reality television series Dance Moms set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania might appear to have been an inspiration for Dance Nation. The simple themes of that program here have been forcefully infused with sociological trimmings and activist sensibilities for little theatrical impact.
Dance Nation (through June 3, 2018)
Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.playwrightshorizons.org
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission