Sister Act

IT's 'Look Ma We're Dancing' is an unconvincing sibling-rivalry drama

The Invisible Theatre's production of Look Ma We're Dancing is a world premiere. Its playwright, Janet Neipris, is far from a newbie, however; she's a professor of dramatic writing at New York University and authored the book To Be a Playwright.

Despite those credentials, Look Ma We're Dancing, directed by Gail Fitzhugh, seems to violate a basic principle of dramatic writing: Action should flow from character. Ideally, plot should not just happen to characters; the people in a play should influence the course of events with their attempts to follow their desires.

Ostensibly, Look Ma We're Dancing is about sibling rivalry. The two main characters are sisters, and each act concerns one sister's visit to the other. In Act 1, the older sibling, Vi (IT artistic director Susan Claassen), goes to Montana to visit sister Franny (Susan Kovitz) before Franny's wedding. In Act 2, Franny returns the favor, turning up at Vi's New York apartment just before Vi's nuptials.

Most of the play is devoted to a dissection of their sisterly dynamic, through arguments between the two women and direct addresses that Vi makes to the audience. The characters talk endlessly about their relationship; they debate which child their mother preferred, and squabble over the items she left behind.

You'd think all this sibling stuff is what would move the plot along. Instead, the play's main conflicts have to do with the men in their lives. It turns out that Franny's intended, Max (James Blair), is having financial troubles. And Vi's fiance, Avery (Burney Starks), has a teenage daughter, Sophie (Bri Giger), whose existence he fails to mention—until she shows up at the door.

Neither of these conflicts is caused by the sisters' tense relationship. Vi's sudden appearance in her sister's life doesn't instigate Max's financial problems. Worse, his money woes seem to crop up out of nowhere. Perhaps it's the way Blair plays his character, but both the play and the production devote a considerable amount of time to setting Max up as a sincere, harmless fellow—only to turn around and require us to view him as a spineless leech instead.

Similarly, Franny's visit to New York doesn't magically conjure up Avery's long-lost daughter. Thus, the structure of each act is something like this: The sisters argue a lot; something unrelated but bad sabotages one sister's romantic relationship; the act ends.

Each woman jokes that the other has an "evil eye" and brings bad fortune, but that's hardly a satisfying explanation. One gets the sense that Neipris simply wanted to show the sisters fighting and then making up, and that she engineered two tense situations simply to keep things going.

It's a shame that the play lacks a compelling dramatic structure, because Claassen and Kovitz are perfectly cast as the two neurotic siblings. They bring humorous warmth to their performances, and they play off each other beautifully. Vi and Franny alternate between reaching out to the other—the characters often hug or dance—and using barbed words to keep the other at a distance. Claassen and Kovitz inhabit the intimate but strained sisterly relationship with a wonderful physicality.

Their male counterparts can't quite keep up. As the mercurial Avery, Starks has an appropriate charm—it's clear why women would fall for this guy. But his line delivery is awkward and amateurish; at one point, he even called a fellow actor by the wrong name.

In contrast, when Giger bursts into the second act as the teenage daughter, she's a welcome addition. Troublemaking Sophie is just the kind of sparkplug character the play had been lacking, and she injects oodles of dramatic tension. She demands that the other characters adapt to her—she wishes to move in with her father and doesn't much care if this damages his relationship with Vi.

Giger brings a grace and swagger to Sophie; she's taller than the other actors and easily dominates the stage. When Sophie departed, I wanted to leave with her.

It doesn't help matters that Look Ma's New York apartment is eerily similar to the New York apartment in the recent IT production In the Mood. (Blair and Claassen designed the sets for both shows.)

Money is tight everywhere, of course, and putting on a new play is a near-heroic endeavor in this day and age. It's always challenging to get folks to take a chance on a new script—so it's a shame that the very talented people at Invisible Theatre should produce a play that neither goes anywhere unexpected nor covers well-worn ground in an effective way.

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