Review: Virginia Rep's "Dancing Lessons" 

click to enlarge Dean Knight and Kylie Clark in "Dancing Lessons." - JAY PAUL
  • Jay Paul
  • Dean Knight and Kylie Clark in "Dancing Lessons."

In one of “Tropic Thunder’s” most politically incorrect scenes, Robert Downey Jr.’s character tells Ben Stiller that the Academy Awards never recognize actors who offer straightforward portrayals of people with mental conditions.

While put in the unkindest terms possible, the scene gets at the idea that Hollywood seems to believe the general public won’t appreciate straightforward representations of people with such conditions as autism or Down syndrome.

Rather, the characters must be exceptional in some other way like Dustin Hoffman’s number-crunching Raymond in “Rain Man” or Tom Hanks’ magical ability to stumble into historical events with “Forrest Gump.”

At odds with this line of thinking is Mark St. Germain’s play “Dancing Lessons,” running at Virginia Repertory Theatre’s Hanover Tavern.

The play opens with Senga (Kylie Clark), a young dancer in a leg brace after a freak accident. She hopes for a surgery that will restore her to her former glory, but in the meantime resorts to whiskey, pills and anger. Her wallowing is interrupted by Ever (Dean Knight), a man with Asperger’s syndrome, who strongly desires a dancing lesson from Senga to prepare for a work function.

From there, the characters embark on a charming and pleasingly unpredictable journey that includes a dash of the romantic. Under Jan Guarino’s capable direction, Knight gives one of his best performances yet, inhabiting a socially awkward man who can’t stand to be touched. In lesser hands, a portrayal of Ever might border on ridicule, but Knight projects a quiet dignity underneath the unease and jokes at his character’s expense. As Senga, Clark balances her character’s edginess with natural warmth, and plays well comically off of Knight.

As usual, Terrie Powers’ set design is excellent when it comes to Senga’s lived-in studio apartment where the bulk of the action takes place, though the sliver shown of Ever’s abode could use a bit more fleshing out.

Hanover audiences might recognize St. Germain from 2014’s “Becoming Dr. Ruth” and 2015’s “The Fabulous Lipitones.” The playwright has crafted a very funny if slightly shallow two-person show that aims to charm and succeeds. It should be especially commended for its treatment of Ever.

You never feel like you’re laughing at him, and he isn’t treated as an idiot savant who can perform minor card-counting miracles. He’s an intelligent, empathetic character on the autism spectrum -- the kind that unfortunately exists in few fictional works.

Virginia Rep’s “Dancing Lessons” plays through April 9 at Hanover Tavern, 13181 Hanover Courthouse Road, Hanover. For information, visit va-rep.org or call 282-2620.

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