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'Look Ma, We’re Dancing' is gentle Jewish-centric comedy

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The Invisible Theatre

'Look Ma, We’re Dancing' is gentle Jewish-centric comedy

Play is a funny, acerbic exploration of sibling rivalry

  • From left, Burney Starks, Susan Kovitz, Susan Claassen and James Blair star in The Invisible Theatre's production of 'Look Ma, We're Dancing.'
    Tim Fuller/Invisible TheatreFrom left, Burney Starks, Susan Kovitz, Susan Claassen and James Blair star in The Invisible Theatre's production of 'Look Ma, We're Dancing.'

The Invisible Theatre’s latest play, “Look Ma, We’re Dancing,” is a gently acerbic comedy of sibling rivalry. The protagonists are two grown-up hyper-competitive New York Jewish-American princesses. We watch as they try to reconnect to their individual lives and their sisterhood following the death of their mother — the glue that had held their family together.

Vi, played note-perfect and knowingly by IT artistic director Susan Claassen, arrives in Montana to surprise her sister, Franny, played by Susan Kovitz, before Franny’s upcoming wedding.

Franny, you see, has gone a little meshuge since the funeral, leaving the urbane comforts of the East Coast for the wilds of Montana. She’s taken a job for the first time, after life as a stay-at-home mom to her adopted Vietnamese twins and two upscale marriages. She’s hoping her old-money rancher fiancé will be her permanent prairie-home companion, though there are nagging doubts.

Vi, the older sister, arrives passive-aggressively early and unannounced, deliberately discombobulating Franny. In perpetual competition, Franny defends her charming ne’er-do-well beau, and a lifestyle estranged from decent lox and a fresh bagels. Vi plays the fish out of water, taken aback by her sister’s ruralization in a primitive land where dead animal heads are acceptable wall decorations. Also, something happened at the funeral, something so bad that no one ever wants to talk about it.

Franny’s fiancé, Max, played smarmily by James Blair, is actually a leech, and a boring one at that. Vi’s boyfriend, Avery arrives, played by Burney Starks, as the wedding plans disintegrate and Franny undergoes an identity crisis that ends Act I with a gunshot.

Act II opens six months later in Vi’s New York brownstone and now she and Avery are doing wedding planning themselves. Concerned that Franny has not responded to their invitation, Vi’s even more disturbed when Franny shows up, also unannounced, as well as broke, homeless and in desperate need of family support. While Avery goes to pick up Chinese takeout, his teenage daughter, Sophie, whom Avery conveniently forgot to mention, shows up from Nebraska, further complicating things. Sophie is played by University of Arizona Theatre Arts senior Bri Giger.

Playwright Janet Neipris provides a funny, well-written slice of life that feels all too true. Both Vi and Franny are lovable but not particularly likable, except when they subjugate their egos to the needs and bonds of family. Tart, elucidating monologues directly to the audience by Vi provide background and commentary and also strengthen the pacing with “Can we talk?” moments.

While the entire cast is clever and entertaining, “Look Ma” gives Claassen ample opportunity to shine. Her droll delivery, especially in her asides, all eye-rolling and conspiratorially confidential, unmasks the true competitive Vi in her struggle to maintain a socially apropos persona.

It is unclear if casting Avery as a shvartser is called for in the script or just a fortuitous opportunity to add additional depth to the text. Lifestyle rather than race is the focus in this setting where everything not New York is suspect and everything not Jewish is equally goy. In any case, both Starks and Giger add nicely to making the ensemble effective.

Kovitz also does a good job as Claassen’s foil – we feel their affection and also their unexplainable discomfort with their relationship. Kovitz and Claassen make it easy to believe that their characters have been sparring for parental affection all their lives and are now at a loss as far as cultivating that affection from each other.

Gail Fitzhugh’s stage direction was clear and takes full advantage of Claassen’s stage-savvy and mugging skills. Also notable is the efficient and effective set design by Claassen and Blair, who is also IT’s associate artistic director. The slick transition of the small IT stage from the Missoula set to the New York set with just a few hinged panels actually earned a round of applause during intermission from the opening-night audience.

In the end, the sisters find the requisite forgiveness and love that ends the show with a warm glow.

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