Zach Calhoon and Rachel Buttram star in Dancing Lessons

Dancing Lessons by Mark St. Germain at the Kitchen Theatre through April 3.

Tender, clear-eyed, and gently humorous, Mark St. Germain’s Dancing Lessons takes the usual romantic comedy formula—throw two misfits together who initially react like oil and water—and weaves this straw into fine gold bullion.

Senga (Rachel Buttram) is a dancer whose career has been cut short when a taxi shattered her leg. She is currently nesting in her apartment, mixing various painkillers with glasses of red wine (and the occasional Jim Beam). Ever (Zack Calhoon) comes buzzing, buzzing, and finally knocking loudly on her apartment door. He’s a professor of geosciences, who lives two floors above, and needs to learn to dance for a professional event. There’s a problem, however: he can’t stand to be touched. He has Asperger’s syndrome (a form of autism) and a severe fear of social situations.

The Kitchen’s production, under the light, sure touch of director Sara Lampert Hoover, sparkles with wit, and thrums with suspense as these two characters are pressed to face the limits of their personal courage. Each scene peels another layer of protection off these two strongly guarded souls, and Buttram’s and Calhoon’s finely calibrated performances run the gamut from the hilarious explosion of stubborn egos, rubbing flint on steel, through a fine rapturous rapprochement on through sharp point of heartbreak and back again.

Much of the humor is sparked by Ever’s lack of a social filter: the laughs are of a familiar trope, for those who follow the shenanigans of Sheldon (Jim Parsons) on The Big Bang Theory or the arch pronouncements of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes. Yet Germain etches a very specific man, a 30-something “success” story who finds himself researching each new social encounter, then analyzing the results. Also, the humor of autism partakes of the collision of logic with less rational emotions, the terrain of Shaw and Wilde on the high end. 

Senga (her dyslexic aunt meant to write ‘Agnes’ on the birth certificate) is in full retreat from a serious relationship and facing the possibility that surgery won’t work. She is a ball of banked fury and melancholy with a short fuse in Buttram’s inspired performance. Buttram captures the awkward mix of lithe and broken in her physicality, while threading a sharply cynical self-pity through a woman both sensual and fun loving when her ever-present guard comes down. One of this actor’s particular gifts (Buttram previously appeared at the Kitchen in Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune) is to be transparent: to convincingly build the mask the character holds up to the world while revealing the raw ache within. It’s a performance of detail and highly focused energy that makes for a delightfully original Senga.

Calhoon also has a tight and specific physicality, revealing the ping-pong of Ender’s thought processes in changes of focus, the eyes moving out into space, then zooming back to the problem at hand. There is a child-like response to dangerous moments of possible intimacy, especially touch. His movements and reactions are rooted deep in the realities of a world alternately curious and frustrating. Calhoon also has immense fun zigging for every one of Buttram’s zags. The moment he finally lets himself be touched is breathtaking.

Lampert Hoover brings her understated grace to this dance, while keeping the visuals clear and making each beat of the story legible. Greatly aiding her is the marvelous set by David L. Arsenault, a graceful old NYC apartment, with inlaid floors, and a proscenium style entryway that doubles as a screening surface for the videos (projection design by Brad Peterson) that punctuate the longer scenes. Tyler M. Perry brushes it with lighting that partners the shifting moods of the play like Ginger to Fred. As always, Lisa Boquist’s costumes are spot-on. • 

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