The Old and the Beautiful

Michael Grady is a playwright/actor/director who not only turns out fine work, but is content to stay in Phoenix putting out for a theater audience that's still developing a taste for new plays. Lured here in the late '80s by Actors Theatre of Phoenix, Grady has remained, appearing in lead roles on most of our Equity stages, garnering good notices for his directing, and seeing several of his plays produced by local companies.

Dancers, now being staged by Black Theatre Troupe, launched Grady's writing career when it won the American College Theatre Festival competition in 1986. The first play he had finished, it has become the most widely produced of his several successful works. The comedy-drama observes the American disregard for the aged with a story that's cynical but not bitter, and funny without aiming its jokes at the elderly. Most generational plays cave in to obvious comparisons between youth and old age and moralisms regarding the modern invisibility of anyone over 60.

With Dancers, Grady invites us to contrast the frailties of indecisive youth with the wisdom of maturity. His old folks are nutty, but they're also the only truly competent people here, the only ones who accept both where they're at and where they're going.

The story concerns Kevin (Timm Rodgers), a young man who befriends a septuagenarian (Precious J. Morris) he meets while visiting his mother in the nursing home where she lives. After his mother dies, Kevin continues to visit the old lady, who rooms with Jack (Mike Traylor), a grumpy old guy who hates everything. Kevin decides that Jack isn't a suitable roommate for his friend, and he arranges to have Julia moved to another room without telling her. A confrontation between Jack and Kevin attracts the attention of a meanspirited nurse (Elaine Bardwell), resulting in unpleasant complications for all.

Dancers is not an African-American play; Grady is white, as is director Michael Mitchell, and this production marks the first time the show has been cast with black actors. Mitchell draws no parallels between the minority experiences of blacks and the elderly; he wisely lets Grady's observations on ageism and the fallible human condition prevail. Only a few textual changes were made to the original script.

Grady's secondary themes--atheism, destiny, classism--are not new, yet he avoids predictability. There are no sermons on the sins of ageism, no commentary on the failings of health care for the elderly, no patronizing speeches about the special rights of the aged. There comes a moment late in the second act where the young man professes to understand the plight of the people he's been visiting. Cursing a blue streak, the old man makes it plain that the young man can't understand--won't understand--the vagaries of old age until he arrives there, and Grady lets the old guy have the last word. The lad remains untransformed by the speech, and the audience leaves having seen a keen dramedy about big issues that isn't tied up with a nice, neat ribbon in the end.

Dancers is both literate and very funny--a rare combination in a play bursting with archetypes (a crotchety old man, a hopeful old woman, a confused youth)--and pleasant to look at. While somewhat attributable to scenic designer Thom Gilseth's handsome set, much of the play's visual appeal is because of Mitchell's canny staging. With an eye toward the limited mobility of Grady's characters (one of them walks with a slow, shuffling gait; the other is often in a wheelchair or in bed), Mitchell confines the action to two rooms, overlapping entrances and exits with bits of business and well-timed segues provided by the supporting players. Mitchell recognizes that the old folks here occasionally approach caricature, and he's wise enough to rein in his actors, saving their unbridled best for each of their big scenes.

The best reason to see this production of Dancers is Mike Traylor's splendid performance as a grumpy old man. Traylor has one of those ageless, facile faces that serve character actors so well; this season alone I've seen him play a 20-ish drifter and a middle-aged con artist with equal confidence. Here, he underplays several key scenes, holding back for the recurrent emotional outbursts Grady has piled on this character. Traylor's comic timing is impeccable, and his blasphemous speeches are refreshingly embellished with physical comedy.

The youthful Morris portrays an old woman without the aid of character makeup or other acting crutches; her clever, controlled performance is flawed only by a too-soft vocal delivery. Rodgers is well-cast as a dim fellow who's questioning his life choices; this contemporary role is a good showplace for his talents.

Grady has written better plays--Comes the Revolution and Dreamers of the Day, an adaptation of several Studs Terkel stories--but Dancers is the best of his character studies. While his work continues to garner national attention (The Harmony Codes won a recent slot at the Sundance Playwright's Lab, and he's had several plays commissioned by regional theater companies), Grady says he's content to call Phoenix home, and glad to see his work staged here. His Phenomenal Smith will be produced by Childsplay later this season, and Actors Theatre of Phoenix has added his newest two-act, White Picket Fence, to its lineup for next year. In the meantime, this rewarding production of Grady's inaugural play provides both an entertaining evening of theater and marks a fine effort by the Black Theatre Troupe.

Black Theatre Troupe's production of Dancers continues through Sunday, March 2, at Helen K. Mason Center for the Performing Arts, 333 East Portland. For more details, see Theater listing in Thrills.