To the outside world, sisters Monica and Amanda would seem to have it made.  They’re attractive, successful 30something businesswomen with active sex and/or love lives. Together they run Grapevine, the successful showbiz p.r. firm passed down to them by their mother Jeannette. Monica has a long-term boyfriend who adores her, while Amanda prefers to play the field dating much younger men on a one-night-stand basis.  What could possibly be wrong with this picture?

The answer is Jeannette’s Huntington Disease, a debilitating nervous disorder which normally sets in sometime between ages 30 and 50, and one which each sister has about a 50-50 chance of having inherited from Mom.

Doug Haverty’s 1991 Can I Have This Dance? lets us spend four or five months with Monica, Amanda, their mother and father, and the men in their lives.  A much lauded hit when it had its World Premiere at the old Colony Theatre, Can I Have This Dance now returns to Los Angeles in a fairly successful production at Beverly Hills’ Theatre 40.

At lights up, Amanda is telling her sister about having met “the most tantalizing man,” and when Monica hears the word “man,” it seems almost impossible to believe that her sister is finally dating someone over the age of 21. (In fact, Errol is only slightly above drinking age.)  Monica’s boyfriend Colin has just gotten back from a business trip to New Zealand, and he at least is “age-appropriate” for a woman in her thirties.

Colin has arrived at the sisters’ home bearing exciting medical news.  Researchers have recently developed a blood test capable of revealing whether or not the Huntington’s gene lurks in a person’s DNA!

Monica and Amanda’s reaction to this news is about as different as their ways of looking at love and relationships.  Amanda is ready to take the test “now, within the hour. I’ve spent thirty-four years putting off a life because I didn’t know if I’d have one. I don’t want to spend another minute in the dark.” To Amanda, the test offers a chance to truly plan ahead, and if the test result isn’t “hallelujah-worthy,” at least she won’t be any worse off than she is now.  Not so, protests Monica. “At least now we have hope.” 

Will Amanda make good her vow to be tested?  Will Monica summon up the courage to do the same?  How will their decisions affect their sisterhood, their romantic relationships, and their relationships with their parents Hank and Jeannette?

Fortunately, these questions are answered in a way that for the most part avoids “disease movie of the week” clichés, with Haverty’s script far more dramedy than drama.  Under Alex Craig Mann’s competent direction, several particularly bright performances spark the proceedings. 

As Amanda, Shelby Kocee is a zesty bundle of energy and vivacity, and newcomer Jonny J is a natural as Errol, and sexy as all get-out. Veteran Theatre 40 leading man Shawn Savage makes for a dynamic, sympathetic Colin. David Hunt Stafford has nice moments as Hank, a role he has evidently stepped into at the last moment. As Jeannette, Diana Angelina is both lovely and heartbreaking, though the play’s conceit of Huntington Disease’s jerky, spasmodic motions depicted as dance (nicely choreographed by Tracy Silver) was one that didn’t work for me as well as I had hoped.  Amy Chaffee (Monica) seemed under-rehearsed on opening night, something which time will hopefully remedy.

Set Designer Jeff G. Rack has created an airy, open 1980s office/home space. Dan Reed’s lighting design is quite effective, especially in moments when Jeannette dances bathed in a single spot.  David Bartlett’s sound design features appropriately dreamlike music underscoring Jeannette’s dance movements. Christine Cover Ferro’s costumes have a nice late 80s feel about them.  Only a message board and calendar which remain unchanged throughout the several months of the play’s action seem jarring amidst an otherwise very good design package.

Though this production of Could I Have This Dance? doesn’t completely live up to the reputation the 1991 original has acquired, it is sure to inspire much discussion about the topics it raises, and for that reason alone is worth seeing.  There won’t be an audience member failing to wonder just what he or she would do if made to walk a mile in Monica and Amanda’s shoes.

Theatre 40, 241 S. Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills.

–Steven Stanley 
February 3, 2010
                                                                           Photos: Ed Krieger

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