The word contact can mean either physical touch or communication; the choreographer Susan Stroman, who’s the moving force (pun intended) behind Contact, wants to show it meaning both at once. That would be fine if she could bring it off, but her choreographic impulse beats her narrative sense every time. As a result, Contact is fairly diverting when it cuts a rug, but rarely makes much contact with anything deeper. (And its constant striving to mean more than mere diversion-it’s the kind of show that seems to whine at you, “Please call me a new art form”-tends to take the edge off the simple pleasures it provides.)
Each of Contact‘s three vignettes is based on a now – you – see – it – now – you – don’t gimmick. The first, “Swinging,” turns a Fragonard painting of a girl in a swing into a sexual picture puzzle: Is one of the two men the weak master and the other the studly servant, or is it all a lewd game in which they perpetually switch positions? Stroman’s choreography, which includes some fairly breathtaking gymnastics for Sean Martin Hingston, is effective, but the piece has the faintly stale tone of genteel softcore porn-Oh! Calcutta! in britches and petticoats.
The longer second piece, “Did You Move?,” is just as gnomic in its own way, despite the advent of spoken dialogue by John Weidman. The time’s the early ’50s. In a sedate Italian buffet restaurant in Queens, a piglike man who may or may not be Connected is giving his wistful wife, and the wait staff, a hard time over dinner. Every time he heads back to the buffet, leaving her with strict orders not to move, her mind drifts into balletic fantasies, to the accompaniment of kitsch from the classical top 10. (All non-Italian, oddly: Grieg, Tchaikovsky, the Farandole from Bizet’s Arlesienne, etc.) During these musical seizures, she engages in torrid embraces with the maître d’, enlists the whole population of the restaurant in her support, and ultimately imagines her hubby’s death in a climactic shoot-out, only to find him still there and piglike at the final fade.
Even with dialogue, the TV-sketch material doesn’t offer much beyond an excuse for dancing-certainly nothing in the way of motive or context. Why is the husband so aggressively rotten? Why hasn’t the wife found a better defense mechanism? Maybe it’s all really a Cold War allegory about the “inward migration” of Soviet artists or some such thing. Or maybe it’s just an excuse for dancing. Stroman notoriously loves props and gadgets, and here she uses a whole kitchenware shop’s worth: carts, trays, dishes, vases, rolls, bowls, tablecloths, breadbaskets-you name it. It’s the “Romantic Atmosphere” dance from She Loves Me in excelsis-and as that suggests, a tad too much of a good thing. Lacking the support of script or score, Stroman’s slapstick humor feels heavy. Her best moment is the Bizet Farandole, to which she sensibly choreographs something not unlike an actual farandole; the duded-up dinner patrons stomping it out like clog-shod peasants in a village square, with sweet Karen Ziemba at their center, make an irresistibly droll image.
There’s no drollery in the lengthy final piece, “Contact.” Remember Busby Berkeley’s “Lullaby of Broadway” number in Gold Diggersof 1935, and how shocked you were, the first time you saw it, when the reveling crowd pushed Wini Shaw out the penthouse window? Well, Stroman apparently never got over the shock. In her version, it’s a guy who gets danced to death-or doesn’t, since she determinedly has it both ways. A producer of TV commercials (Boyd Gaines) has just won an award, but chooses suicide in his swanky loft over his own victory party. After several failed attempts-you can fill in the details of this vaudeville routine yourself-the rope breaks and he goes to a present-day “swing club” where people do ’30s dances to music from most of the prerock decades, and a philosophic bartender-I kid you not, a philosophic
bartender-gives him the courage to pursue the girl who’s the cynosure of all male eyes. Of course, she only wants to dance and he can’t, but that’s just as well, since the rope hasn’t really broken and she is, in fact, Death. Except that the rope has broken and she’s just his sweet but mousy neighbor come up to bitch about his late-night noise. In my view, producers of TV commercials should all be hanged as air polluters, but Stroman takes her hero’s quest in earnest. To her, he’s just another little guy in search of his chance at happiness, and the moral of this ornate meet-cute is that you must never turn your back on life, as exemplified by swing dancing.
Fortunately, Stroman knows how to build a big, thundering-herd lindy, and make each of its couples excitingly different. Deborah Yates, doubling as the femme fatale and the mouse downstairs, lacks Ziemba’s individuality, but compensates with zest and supple technique, easily matched by Stroman’s first-class male ensemble. All of Gaines’s considerable charm can’t make the suicidal schnook appealing, but another of Stroman’s ingenuities is to evade his limitations as a dancer by making him, in effect, the inanimate object that gets tossed around in his big confrontation with Yates. Is this a new approach to musical theater? Nah-it’s just a dance concert for people who think Balanchine’s Nutcracker is too highbrow.
**The hero of Fully Committed would probably find that Queens restaurant in Contact rather restful. He works for one of those overpriced flavor-of-the-month East Side joints, booking over the phone the tables every celebrity and CEO would kill for, at least until the buzz decrees that this chef has lost his touch, and the squab in fennel sauce has mysteriously lost its savor. Sam the reservation-taker, however, has other issues on his mind, like, will he ever get an acting job and escape from the triple-barreled bullying of the arrogant chef, the captious headwaiter, and the work-avoiding colleagues whose fuckups and alibis keep Sam hopping.
They all duly get their comeuppance, while Sam gets not only that big role he wanted at Lincoln Center (dancing in Contact?), but some unexpected pocket money and Christmas week off to see his ailing dad too. He has to go through some shit to get there, but as he’s played by Mark Setlock, under Nicholas Martin’s direction, with such appealing ease and energy, you can’t help rooting for him. Setlock also supplies the voices of everyone Sam talks to, rarely slipping as he skips with manic blitheness from one role to the next in Becky Mode’s slyly piled-up rush of incoming calls. If Fully Committed has a flaw, it’s the glib overriding notion that whatever you really want in New York can be had only by exchanging favor for favor. Would Bernie Gersten really get someone a role at the Beaumont in return for a table in some snob eatery? I must call him. Bernie, baby, the folks at the Metro Diner are pals of mine; you and Cora can sit anywhere you want. Now about my latest translation…