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‘Dance Nation’ Theater Review: Why No One Ever Really Escapes Adolescence

Clare Barron’s quirky new play treats young girls like women and the boy among them like a prop

A group of very untalented dancers perform a “Fancy Free” routine that might have been choreographed by Jerome Robbins if he’d been a hack. The dancers’ ages range from 20 to 60, and despite the sailor costumes, all but one is a woman.

Our preconceptions about these dancers will quickly change in the opening scenes of “Dance Nation,” which opened Tuesday at Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons, and our keeping track of those changes is just one of the small, quirky pleasures of Clare Barron’s new play.

As it turns out, most of the dancers aren’t women. Despite the actresses’ real ages, the characters they’re playing are preadolescent girls performing in a dance contest. And the one guy among them isn’t female; he’s really what he appears to be, male, and his name is Luke. Then again, the Luke character is also adolescent despite the actor Ikechukwu Ufomadu looking to be around 30.

Watching “Dance Nation” unfold, you’re not immediately sure of anything, and it’s a delight to have your sense of reality completely thrown off several times in a matter of minutes. Lee Sunday Evans’ direction and very nontraditional casting is similar but far more adventurous than what James Lapine did with “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

Barron covers some of the same ground explored in Sarah DeLappe’s much-lauded “The Wolves,” although her characters are a few years younger. Coping with body identity and the heartbreaking unfairness of competition when other people have all the talent and you have next to none — these are issues that stay with a person forever and often are never resolved except in the most egregiously damaging ways.

If Amina (Dina Shihabi) has the potential to be a star dancer, why does the much less talented Zuzu (Eboni Booth) get the starring role in an upcoming recital piece? While Barron leaves that for us to decide, much more intriguing is the very civilized battle that ensues between the two girls. There’s a minefield of hurt ahead of them, but Shihabi and Booth wisely never let their characters explode.

I’m no expert here, but DeLappe’s play gives the impression of replicating the way teenage girls speak among themselves. Apparently, this is not Barron’s goal. Conversations about menstruation, masturbation, losing one’s virginity and whether or not your future son should be circumcised run the gamut from truly innocent, if not childish, to decidedly middle-aged and rather jaded.

The characters do a lot of fantasizing about what their lives might be like once they leave the hell hole of adolescence and adulthood begins. Some of those fantasies appear to be extraordinarily prescient, giving the final moments of “Dance Nation” a wistful glow of future nostalgia. Amid all the damaged egos and escapist thinking, the play also includes a very graphic scene of one girl’s grappling with an unexpected period during a dance competition.

As the characters come to terms with their young bodies, they tend to treat the elephant in the room as if he wasn’t there. For all the sex talk, the only time they really address Luke is when they muse about circumcision. Luke never gives them an answer about the state of his own penis. Otherwise, he is a shy and gentle prop, and what Barron leaves unsaid about him through Ufomadu’s truly self-effacing performance is what will shape these women’s lives with the opposite sex.

Only a young beta male would join a dance competition with a bunch of girls, and Luke, for his part, doesn’t even ask to be acknowledged when the dance instructor (Thomas Jay Ryan providing a nastier version of Corky St. Clair from “Waiting for Guffman”) keeps referring to “you girls.” It’s no wonder why these girls, now and when they’re adults, have no interest in him.

The talented ensemble also features Purva Bedi, Camila Cano-Flavia, Ellen Maddow, Christina Rouner and Lucy Taylor.

Robert Hofler, TheWrap's lead theater critic, has worked as an editor at Life, Us Weekly and Variety. His books include "The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson," "Party Animals," and "Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange, How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos." His latest book, "Money, Murder, and Dominick Dunne," is now in paperback.