In the current production of Swing at the Irish Arts Center, when Janet Moran and then Steven Blount initially appear – as May and Joe – both head to their corners of the stage and prepare for that evening’s swing dancing class. She checks her deodorant and rummages for breath mints, he rips off a bike helmet and grabs a bottle of water.
We soon learn that it’s May’s first time, whereas Joe is a regular. And with the first cry of “Change partners!” Moran and Blount then morph into the cheesy dance instructors, he favoring lame puns, she any and all variations on the teenage term “amazeballs”.
Each subsequent “Change partners!” serves as the next turn of the kaleidoscope and a shift to other characters in the play.
In total, the pair of actors embody some five or six people each, though we spend the most time with May and Joe. She’s somewhere on in her mid-30s, working as a graphic designer and involved with a man away on assignment in Peru – in both cases, she’s settling. May has portraits that she does, but can’t imagine getting paid for them, and the boyfriend’s main pluses are that he hasn’t stood her up at a wedding to go off with an ex- and he’s not married.
Joe is in his 50s, forced by globalization and its inherent competition to sell the family printing business which had been failing, has returned to school to learn horticulture. He’s also divorced and living in a bedsit (“I’m a country and Western song!”)
Over the course of some weeks, the duo reveal their pasts and their presents, and an ease grows between them ‘til we find ourselves not only wondering “Will they or won’t they?” but also wanting them very much to do-dee-do-dee-do together into the sunset. May’s smart and no-nonsense, but with a vulnerability that suggests she feels time is passing and there isn’t enough left for grabbing any brass rings. Joe has taken some blows previously, but he’s made peace with the past and is now facing forward with an optimistic demeanor.
Among the other people in the class, we meet a cross-section of contemporary, post-Tiger Dublin: a friendly woman working at Google but missing her family on the continent, an urbane gay man recounting his previous night’s clubbing and doing a running commentary on the private lives of all the other students on the dance floor, a fiercely independent woman being wooed by her builder, and an innocent goofball from the countryside who counts out loud while stomping out the steps and leaving his female partners asphyxiated by his body odor, to mention just a few.
It’s amazing how much color and nuance Moran and Blount and Peter Daly (the director who, together with Gavin Kostick and the actors, co-authored Swing between them, as it grew from the Show in a Bag initiative) manage to imbue all their characters with, and inside the duration of only an hour, on a relatively spartan stage.
By comparison, last year, as exciting as it was to see Tom Hanks and Maura Tierney and the rest of the big names in Nora Ephron’s Lucky Guy on Broadway, that experience had nothing on how masterfully the writing, direction and acting in Swing draw you into the world of the play, and with such deceptive ease.
Swing, a Fishamble production, runs until 18 May at the Irish Arts Center and has not only been selected as the NY Times Critics Choice, but also given a rave review by the paper. Don’t miss it before it begins a summer tour of Europe!
It is paired on a double bill with the equally lauded Beowulf: The Blockbuster.