Paul Manuel Kane had ambitious goals for “Dancing on Nails,” including discussions of race, love and family. Unfortunately, these themes play out in the context of a five-caricature play. Not characters, but caricatures, whose motivations are confusing and undermine the best of Kane’s intentions.
The setting is New York in the spring of 1953. Sam Heisler (Peter Van Wagner) is a 50-year-old Jewish bachelor who seems most comfortable in the successful hardware store he owns.
His only employees are Carlos, a never-seen deliveryman, and Rose Levitt (Lori Wilner), Sam’s unhappily married cousin. Her husband, Joe (Michael Lewis), is a would-be jazz musician who blames the world for his problems.
Luba (Lauren Klein) seems to be a family friend, whose sole purpose is to fill in the many plot holes on the play’s road to an unsatisfying denouement.
Rose has hired a young African American, Natalie Washington (Jazmyn Richardson), to help out at the store. Natalie lives with her grandmother, wants to be an opera singer, and studies music.
At first Heisler is cold to her, insisting she stay late on her first day when she clearly wants to leave. He’s also dismissive of her goals. “Don’t throw your life away with fancy ambitions,” he tells her. “You gotta be practical.”
But by the time she leaves he seems smitten by her, which is not practical at all. This unexpected attraction doesn’t make sense within the context of the play. There’s nothing in Heisler’s back story to indicate that he’d do anything so impulsive.
Eventually, he takes Natalie out to dinner, buys her gifts and prepares to ask for her hand. All despite the fact that she does nothing to encourage him and seems unaware of his romantic attention.
That she is so oblivious seems a stretch, when her boss suddenly asks her out to dinner, gives her a locket and takes a surprising interest in opera.
But there is a lot that doesn’t make sense in this play. When Natalie summarizes Madame Butterfly for Sam, and how Lt. Pinkerton, the white American, abandons his Japanese lover, Sam’s response is, “The guy’s not Jewish, I hope.”
A scene early on has Joe talking to an unseen Army psychiatrist. Joe has put in a claim, though we have no idea for what. He tells the doctor he joined the military so he could play in the Army band, an opportunity denied because of his Irish commander’s anti-Semitism. He was, Joe claims, “a typical Irish hard on.” What’s your name, doctor? “Dr. O’Shaughnessy. Nice to Meet you.” Really?
Rose married misanthropic Joe because she was 36, Jewish, and he asked. Now, two years later, she wants to adopt a baby, but they do not have the financial resources to pass the adoption agency’s financial test. She needs to borrow $15,000 from Sam, a loan threatened by his relationship.
She fires Natalie. Sam allows it. He gives her the money and as the play endsf she heads out to continue the adoption process, though Joe has left her and the agency wouldn’t allow a single parent to adopt a child in 1953.
The performances are unconvincing; the actors seem perplexed by what they are asked to do.