Curtain Calls

Review: 'Syncopation'

Something 'magnificent' at Meadow Brook

Remember those story problems you had to solve in math class? The ones that went something like this: A train leaves New York on Monday at 8 a.m. heading west, while an eastbound train departs San Francisco at noon. When and where will the trains meet?
Well, that's the analogy that popped into my head last Saturday night while watching the magnificently staged romantic comedy, "Syncopation," at Meadow Brook Theatre.
That's because – like those trains – Jewish meatpacker Henry Ribelow and Italian seamstress Anna Bianchi are both moving towards a destination; it's just that they are on opposite tracks and are moving at vastly different speeds.
It's the second decade of the twentieth century, and Henry, a 38-year-old Polish immigrant, has but one passion: ballroom dancing. His dream is to "dance before royalty," but to do that, he needs a partner. So he places an ad in a local newspaper, but gets no response until 27-year-old Anna climbs the 108 steps to his bleak studio in New York's Lower East Side.
It's not a partnership made in heaven: Henry is a brooding but humorously animated man with a vision for the future, while Anna is insecure and caught between wanting to follow society's rules and wanting to break them. Still, Anna shows up at the studio week after week – despite an irrational fear that her partner has "illicit" intentions towards her.
The two have their ups and downs, but just when they seem to be on the verge of success, outside influences and Henry's inability to verbalize his innermost thoughts derail their relationship.
Or does it simply take time for kindred souls to pull into the same station together?
Although I walked into "Syncopation" with yawning enthusiasm – ballroom dancing rates fairly low on my list of interests – its allure became immediately obvious. Playwright Allan Knee's two-person script is a study of human nature, and it's fascinating to watch as he slowly peels away the layers of his multifaceted characters. So thankfully, this is not a story about ballroom dancing, but the dance conflicted people do around their emotions.
It's a concept that Director John M. Manfredi and Choreographer Emily Rose Merrell grasp, as their pacing is totally in tune with the rhythms of the script. As such, our attention never waivers; it's always totally focused.
But it's the captivating performances of Richard Marlatt and Roxanne Wellington that pull us into the story. Marlatt especially shines, as we feel his anger, understand his frustration and share his pain. And when he tells us he's dancing with an unseen partner, we know she's there because he shows us so.
"Syncopation" runs Wed.-Sun. at Meadow Brook Theatre, on the campus of Oakland University in Rochester, through March 5. Tickets: $20-$36. For information: 248-377-3300 or
The Bottom Line: Don't let the ballroom dancing keep you from this slickly staged, beautifully acted romantic comedy.

Preview: 'During Regular Business Hours'

Original comedy promises 'big, gay, happy ending'

How many times have you been at work and said to yourself, 'Someone ought to write a play about this?'"
Timothy A. Wojtala has, and the fruits of his imagination will hit the stage of the Trenton Village Theatre beginning Feb. 24.
"It was a fun process," Wojtala said of his experience writing the tongue-in-cheek comedy, "During Regular Business Hours."
The office worker-turned-playwright based his script on his experiences working in an office for the past 27 years, first in the trucking industry and now as a realtor. "You could write a play every day if you work in an office, because the unexpected happens all the time," he said.
That's especially true for the disgruntled employees of Wojtala's fictional Crush Corporation. "The owner of the company has become very rich and famous through the efforts of her employees, and she's forgotten them," the playwright revealed. So a few of the characters plot to take back some of what they feel they deserve. But their ineptitude gets in the way.
"It's exciting," Wojtala said of watching his characters come alive. "They're breathing, they're talking – they're not just words on a piece of paper."
There are also plenty of innuendos scattered throughout his work – especially when it comes to the characters' names. There's Christy-Ann Iddy, a member of the Church of the Previous Day Sinners, and Cye Cocase. "If you say some of their names real fast, you'll see that," Wotjala said.
Then there's Richard Socker, a "closeted happy guy," who's the subject of several groan-inducing puns. "Everyone's always looking for Dick. Is Dick coming? No, Dick slipped out," laughed the playwright.
Wojtala, a self-proclaimed former introvert, had no interest in theater until the death of his mother in 1997 thrust him into a depression. Needing to do something, he approached the Trenton Community Players, a nearby troupe that was searching for male actors. "They invited me in and totally embraced me. The friends I've made are life-long; it changed my life."
After accepting roles in the chorus and, later, to playing leading men, Wojtala is now both directing and appearing in his first-ever produced script. "It's kind of hard, because even though I wrote the script, I still have to learn the lines," he chuckled.
Appearing with him will be his 18-year-old son, Tom; supporting him in the audience will be his partner of seven years, Roger, and the playwright's eldest son, Tim.
To thank TCP for supporting him when he needed it most, Wojtala is donating his royalties back to the financially struggling troupe. And he hopes each performance will be a sell-out. "In today's world, everyone needs to laugh. If we can make you laugh for a little while – shoot, I'd pay ten dollars to laugh," he concluded.
"During Regular Business Hours" will be staged Feb. 24-26 & Mar. 3-4 by the Trenton Community Players at Trenton Village Theatre, 2447 West Jefferson in downtown Trenton. Tickets: $10. For information: 734-283-2639. Contains adult content.


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