Dance the Fright Away

by Michael Bowen & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & nterplayers' Stepping Out (through April 1) is an often funny, sometimes somber slice of life about a group of amateur tap dancers. In Troy Nickerson's production, it's a well-directed, enjoyable look at how people act when they commit to practicing something they love -- even though they're really not very good at it, even though their lives are flawed.

Seven women and one man meet weekly in a church basement to practice their dancing. They have an ex-chorus girl for a teacher and one crabby old gal over there on piano. Soon they'll be called up to perform at a charity show -- which gives Richard Harris' play a narrative frame.

Wisely, he leaves most of his characterizations unresolved. With most of these people, we never find out how or if they solve their problems in the world outside the dance hall. (That's how we experience others' lives anyway.) Harris is no rush to underscore the lessons learned from overcoming this misjudgment or that mistake.

With his direction, Nickerson follows suit. People rush in and out, show up late, revert to unconscious habits when isolated off to the side -- much as they would in everyday life. For the most part, Harris supplies naturalistic conversations, and Nickerson gets his actors to develop their anxieties, boredoms and petty jealousies in believable ways.

The parallel between the amateurs puttin' on a show in Stepping Out and in Interplayers' present situation shouldn't be overemphasized, but it can't be ignored either. The theater is presenting a show about tap dancers, but its recent efforts at reorganization have appeared like a kind of tap dance, too: artistic director quits, half the season replaced, clear signs of financial distress. In each case -- for both the theater and its present show -- there's a fair amount of lofting those straw hats and grinning out into the darkness, hoping against formidable odds that everything will turn out OK.

In the world within the playhouse, Nickerson's cast gradually puts together a tap routine, overcoming obstacles and ending up with a finale that, if it's not quite spectacular, is still quite accomplished. In the world the playhouse lives in -- well, they're trying to whistle their way past some disappointments, too.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & ne impressive aspect of the various tap dance rehearsals we watch in Stepping Out -- carried through all the way to the predictably triumphant final extravaganza, when these regular-gal hoofers finally get to show us what they've got -- is that Nickerson and the two cast members who serve as choreographers, Kathie Doyle-Lipe and Greg Pschirrer, keep it plausible. The first halting rehearsals have eight dancers doing eight different -- and laughably bad -- routines, but without indulging in slapstick. Later on, the more polished routines have touches of anxiety and not-quite-there-yet indecisiveness, even though there are clearly some accomplished dancers onstage who could show off a lot more if they needed to. But Harris' script doesn't have any use for either the Three Stooges in the early going or the polish of the Rockettes later on. Nickerson and Pschirrer find the balance.

Doyle-Lipe does, too, though more as choreographer than performer. As Vera -- the bubbly little Brit who's constantly nosing around other people's business and trying to improve their lives -- she's in full shtick mode. Maybe it's because (as in ARt's recent Ayckbourn show) she's playing yet another compulsive cleaner who's in denial about the dirty little secrets of her own life, but Doyle-Lipe here is taking the easy way to laughs. The mincing pitty-pat steps, the bobbing head and overeager gesticulations, that one flamboyant costume -- they're all very funny, but they also undermine the big speech that Harris has written to explain Vera's quirks. The playwright is trying too hard for a Big Speech, but the performer in this case overdoes the setup.

As the teacher of the class, Danae Lowman projects the right kind of concern for her students while still demonstrating over and over that, compared to them, she's in her own dancing league. A dramatic second-act revelation of hers isn't entirely convincing -- but then there are a couple other lapses like that as well late in this production. As the Troubled One of the group, Angela Snyder needs to let the emotional lava flow when her turns comes, though she certainly creates some haunting moments before then. Nicole Hicks injects some black sass and simply puts it on out there. And Becky Moonitz -- the passive-aggressive accompanist, shades of Estelle Getty in Golden Girls -- displays her talents for comedy, classical music and dance. (She's even displaying her art in the Gellhorn Gallery.)

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & J & lt;/span & ust when they needed it, Interplayers has produced a fun and engaging show. Like these insecure dancers down in a church basement, who among us hasn't wished for a little more time to do the things we love, even if we're not particularly good at them? These ragtag characters aren't too talented, and their lives are just as screwed up as the rest of ours are. But they still keep coming back every week, facing their insecurities and their failings. There's a lesson for us in how they keep on Stepping Out.