Ensemble Theatre’s ‘Slow Dance on the Killing Ground’ stumbles despite graceful production
By Bob Abelman
A young black fugitive, a political refugee from Nazi Germany, and a Jewish girl seeking a backstreet abortion walk into a room.
This sounds like the setup for a bad joke with a distasteful punch line, but it is the plot summary of William Hanley’s three-act play “Slow Dance on the Killing Ground,” at Ensemble Theatre.
Written at a time when the existential plays of Jean-Paul Sartre, the avant-garde work of Samuel Beckett, and the biting dialogue of Edward Albee offered theatergoers creative, cutting-edge social commentary, Hanley’s drama was more concerned with the social dynamics — the slow dance — that take place when a diverse group of helpless, victimized strangers are confined to the same small space and bare their wounds.
Never a crowd-pleaser — an early New York Times review noted that the words coming out of actors’ mouths seemed to be accompanied by the sound of typewriter keys — “Slow Dance” lasted a mere 88 performances on Broadway in 1964. Its Off-Broadway revival in 1970 stayed less than a month.
Recent productions have not fared any better. The more removed the play is from its roots in the theater scene of the ’60s, the more contrived this chance meeting in a Brooklyn candy store on the night that war criminal Adolf Eichmann was executed seems to be. And with each passing year, the time-locked dramatic license that allowed characters to break into brooding self-disclosures and lengthy, hyper-theatrical monologues grows increasingly dated.
Although an odd choice by Ensemble Theatre, its production does come with some creative decisions by director Greg White and his design team (Ron Newell, Meg Parrish and Steven Barton) that mask much of the play’s unsightly age spots.
One of the boldest was combining the three acts of “Slow Dance” — which the playwright labeled Pas de Deux, Pas de Trois, and Coda — into two. This speeds along and even circumvents some of the characters’ endless introspection and allows the audience to better connect with each character without so many intermissions. The downside is that the slow dance becomes a tarantella at times in order to keep each act from running too long, which sacrifices some drama for alacrity.
Three of the best decisions were casting Nathan Tolliver as the talkative, tormented, game-playing Randall; Joseph Milan as the world-weary shop owner Glas, who wants nothing more than to suffer in silence and solitude; and Leah Smith as Rosie from Riverdale, whose insecurities about her looks and personality define her existence.
These actors brilliantly capture the psychological essence of their characters, as well as their distinctive speech patterns, and prioritize authenticity over the playwright’s fascination with the metaphoric.
Case in point: Late in the play, it is revealed that each character bears the immense guilt of having denied life to another person, which Hanley uses as a device to add mystery to the proceedings and stir up the group dynamics. But these actors wear the weight of those feelings on their sleeves from their opening scenes. This gives their characters an added layer of complexity and makes for some truly intriguing acting choices on stage that are not in the script.
This production tries and most often succeeds in finding a balance between the realism the performers embrace and the outdated theatricality the script demands. Sometimes, however, both approaches end up leading the slow dance, resulting in the production stepping on its own toes.
This happens during each character’s confessional monologue, which White stages at the very edge of the performance space and inches from the audience. The speech could either be the hyper-theatrical moment it was intended to be, where the actor is bathed in isolating light and delivers the speech to the universe. Or the actor could break the fourth wall and have a genuine moment with the audience. Instead, these moments are stuck in the middle, with the actor talking at us but not with us, and production values never shifting to facilitate the storytelling one way or the other.
“Slow Dance on the Killing Ground” is most certainly a troublesome play, but Ensemble Theatre works valiantly to make it an accessible and interesting piece of work. CV
WHAT: “Slow Dance on the Killing Ground”
WHERE: Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights
WHEN: Through Feb. 28
TICKETS & INFO: $12-$24, call 216-321-2930 or visit firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Feb. 8, 2016.