Fifty years ago, some of us thought that issues such as racism and abortion would certainly have been resolved by now. We were the generation of love, hope, peace and ganja. In retrospect, we clearly should have backed off a bit on the wacky weed, because those issues have only festered and become even more divisive over the decades.
But if you want to journey back to that time, the play now at Ensemble Theatre is a sturdy little vehicle. In Slow Dance on the Killing Ground, William Hanley used his 1964 script to deal with a number of important topics at the time. And while the play frequently creaks with age, the three performers under the expressive direction of Greg White find some surprising nuances hiding in the creases.
The all-too-convenient structure of the play, set in New York City in 1962, features folks who meet in a rundown candy store and immediately start probing for each other's deepest secrets. The dour shop owner Glas (no first name) is an immigrant from Germany who says he was a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Soon his door is flung open by Randall, a jive-talking young black man who is clearly hiding from someone. And hiding seems like a good idea since he's not exactly inconspicuous — wearing a purple satin cape, a snap-brim fedora and carrying an umbrella.
If this seems like a strange and random costume choice, it isn't. Around that time in Hell's Kitchen, there was an infamous double murder committed by two young gang-bangers: one who sported a cape and the other who carried an umbrella with a sharpened point. And Randall, who says his IQ is 187 (and has the rap to justify it) is a character meant to embody that sinister aspect of society. Fun fact: Paul Simon created a short-lived Broadway musical based on those people, titled The Capeman.
Anyhow, in the middle of the first act of Slow Dance a woozy young woman named Rosie stumbles into Glas' dingy domain. She promptly unburdens herself of her recent history, which includes seeking an abortion in this nasty part of town.
So there we have Hanley's troika of sadness, three people who each see the world outside the little shop as a killing ground, for entirely different reasons. The three proceed to box step around volatile issues as Randall shares his history of abandonment by his prostitute mother and his defiant pride concerning his mental prowess. We soon learn that Randall's hip exterior is just camouflage, hiding a more serious and reflective core that battles with his instinct for violence, a fact that is made clear when he discloses why the police are looking for him.
As for Glas, all is not as it seems with him either. Turns out, his story about being a Jewish prisoner isn't quite true, even though he has the numerical arm tattoo. When Glas talks about a terrible choice he made back then, his gruff and defensive posture seems quite understandable: He has demons that are eating him from the inside out.
Rosie hasn't yet taken action on her choice to terminate her pregnancy, as she is trying to find a "doctor" in this seedy neighborhood who could do the job. (Yes, children, that's how women had to scrap for this type of medical care, pre-Roe v. Wade.) In this way, the playwright puts lives at stake all over the place, and there is much contemplation of these issues through dialogue that, while not always realistic, has a frank and open honesty that is refreshing.
As Glas, Joe Milan has the fixed, thin-lipped frown and rigid posture of a man who is keeping way too much inside himself. And he registers powerfully with the other actors, when the script allows it. But his Glas doesn't inhabit his own store, executed with admirable detail by set designer Ron Newell, as fully as he might. This shabby shop and all the items in it are ultimately his refuge from the emotional carnage outside the door, and it would be good to feel that sense of fragile comfort.
Nathan Tolliver exhibits slick charm as the glib version of Randall, even though his street-wise patter takes on a decidedly mechanical rhythm after a while. A smoother and more engaging affect in these early scenes might have helped "serious" Randall land with more heft, and generate a bit more fear, later on.
In the sharply written role of Rosie, Leah Smith is both funny and achingly genuine. Swinging easily from self-deprecating jabs to deeply felt anguish about her pregnancy decision, Smith forges the most fully rounded character in the piece.
Even with its geriatric creaks, Slow Dance takes us through a number of moves that feel true and important. And that's always a dance worth taking.