Couples Counseling

Four people struggle with intimacy and each other in A Step Away.

You know this man. He has a keen mind and no social skills whatsoever. He asks the boldest questions at gatherings (“Do you really enjoy sex?” to a friend’s wife), and makes the most outrageous suggestions without any clue of how inappropriate they are. He’s just a little bit frightening; you can feel that he might do anything if provoked. He’s a grenade with the pin pulled out, and you’re too polite, too well bred, too responsible, to just throw him aside.

And now he wants to move into your house and study you.

Welcome to Central Works’ premiere of A Step Away, a razor-edged new comedy from playwright Myrna Holden, Ph.D. The Ph.D is important; Holden got hers in social/clinical psychology, and it shows in her witty and often incisive exploration of four people struggling with intimacy and each other. The two couples — one numbingly self-actualized, the other threatening to blow apart at the seams like a stuffed animal won at a carnival ring-toss — spend a few evenings trying to connect through a combination of shaming, intimidation, high-blown psychology-speak and, when all else fails, some of the silliest seductive dancing imaginable. It’s like life, but more so. It’s life as it would be if people said what they were really thinking, without regard to the consequences.

Dan and Jesse haven’t spoken since they were in school together. So when Dan reenters Jesse’s life after wandering around from country to country engineering dams, he’s surprised to learn that the once-passive Jesse has changed. Jesse chalks up the change both to age and to meeting and marrying the headstrong, passionate Emma, so it stands to reason that Dan and Emma will clash. Impressed by the fact that Jesse managed to find a woman he liked who liked him back, Dan decides he should move in with the couple and learn the secret of Jesse’s success.

It’s a promising premise, but Holden backs away just when things have come to an intriguingly menacing point. Instead of pushing these three into the waiting powder keg, she introduces a fourth person. Fortunately, that fourth is the giddy, hedonistic Tilly, whom Deb Fink plays as cheerfully mercenary. While Tilly isn’t as self-aware as the other three, she does have some insight into her “two great strengths: seduction and rejection.” So she plays Dan for money and shelter until his other qualities start to bore her, and into that boredom falls the opportunity for Dan’s redemption. The thing is, the whole sequence is played out in excruciating detail in front of Jesse and Emma, who watch with acute discomfort, prompting Tilly to ask “Why are you people so weak?” Irrational, defensive, and bouncy, Tilly is a chewy role, and Fink looks as if she’s having a good time with it.

Dancing is important to the movement of the story, and Fink is wonderful at bad dancing: Clad in black pants and a belt made of scarves, with little pigtails curled in knots on her head, she’s a cut-rate Salome who apparently got bored at the point where she had to master technique in a dozen different dance forms. A little belly dance, a little modern, some West African influence, and a lot of basic bump and grind; you can feel how embarrassed Jesse and Emma feel watching it, even before Tilly starts mashing with Dan in front of them. The character may lack style, but the actress clearly has control of her own instrument.

Jesse, on the other hand, admits that he has no control or idea when it comes to dancing. In fact, he appears to be a man completely divorced from his body or true feelings, a weakness that Soren Oliver plays touchingly and with a host of tics. Although Jesse claims to have put his old passive self behind, Dan’s reappearance awakens an old dynamic of alpha and beta dog that Jesse struggles to resist. Stopping dead in the middle of heated conversations to make notes into his miniature voice recorder, surreptitiously twisting first his own handkerchief and then Tilly’s sparkly scarf in his hands, and wobbling pitifully when Dan scores a point, Jesse looks like he could revert to his school self in a moment.

But Jesse is caught between two powerful forces: Tom Darci’s restless, insistent Dan, and Jan Zvaifler’s fully analyzed, completely Berkeley Emma. Dan stalks into Jesse and Emma’s house, tossing his jacket peremptorily to the former and taking a seat as if he’s welcome, though he obviously isn’t. “I am a bastard, but even bastards need friends,” he points out to Jesse. But clearly he has no idea of how one goes about getting some. Darci doesn’t play Dan as likable, so when the character has a breakthrough late in the story it’s much more interesting and the moment — facing off with Emma — is that much more intense.

Emma, meanwhile, looks a lot like the characters we usually see from Zvaifler — tough and articulate. Like Jesse, she lives in her head and strives for civility. Unlike her husband, it’s hard to make her lose her balance, although Dan tries. And does he ever: Some of the most nastily funny moments are when he acts as if her feelings have no bearing on whether he’s allowed to move into her house. One of Zvaifler’s funniest moments is near the beginning, where Emma is describing a dream in which she’s cleaning up a forest because its untidiness bothers her; characters talking about their dreams is often a cheap development trick, but Zvaifler sells it.

Plays featuring two couples in crisis are a dime a dozen. The situation’s potential for emotional disaster is high, the dynamics are interesting yet easy to keep track of, and the basic story is all too consistent with our real lives. Yet unlike many such stories, A Step Away doesn’t revolve around an infidelity, which is refreshing. It’s also very internal. Holden’s dissection of how “conscious and/or unconscious needs push to be gratified” makes this play far more about the individual characters and their challenges than what happens between them, although that’s also important.

It’s a play that probably wouldn’t work half so well in a less-intimate venue than the Berkeley City Club, where every twitch, every sweating hairline, is clearly visible. “We live at a distance,” Dan notes at one point. This play reveals how great that distance can be even in the closest relationships.

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