PITTSFIELD — Romance as repair project: It’s one of the oldest dramatic devices there is.
So it can’t be said that Mark St. Germain’s “Dancing Lessons,’’ a quirky comedy-drama now receiving its world premiere at Barrington Stage Company, takes us anywhere especially surprising as a relationship develops between an awkward academic with Asperger’s syndrome and an embittered dancer coping with a major leg injury.
But reinventing the wheel has seldom been St. Germain’s aim. What seems to interest this fine playwright instead are the layers of emotional and psychological truth that can be revealed, and the common ground that can be discovered, when you throw outwardly dissimilar people together and steadily turn up the heat.
In St. Germain’s “Freud’s Last Session,’’ which premiered at Barrington Stage in 2009 before going on to a lengthy off-Broadway run, nonbeliever Sigmund Freud and believer C. S. Lewis battle to a draw when it comes to the question of God’s existence, but each learns something important from the other about the nearly-as-complex subject of humanity.
In “The Best of Enemies’’ (2011), inspired by a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction real story, an African-American civil rights activist and a Ku Klux Klan leader somehow end up forging not just an alliance but a friendship as the latter’s racist beliefs dissipate and they work together to desegregate the schools in Durham, N.C., in the early 1970s.
Now comes “Dancing Lessons,’’ the eighth world premiere by St. Germain at Barrington Stage, and the fourth to be helmed by the company’s artistic director, Julianne Boyd. She demonstrates a sure and sensitive touch that mostly keeps the play clear of maudlin territory.
Ever Montgomery, portrayed by John Cariani, is a brilliant professor of geosciences whose expertise is global warming. Other kinds of warmth, not so much. Ever is unable to tolerate even the most minimal physical contact and does not often make eye contact, either. Senga Quinn, played by Paige Davis, is facing the possible loss of a dancing career that means everything to her, thanks to a taxi that jumped a curb and shattered her left knee. Both Ever and Senga have, in different ways, retreated from the world.
They meet when Ever shows up at the door of Senga’s studio apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and offers her $2,153 — he’s very precise on the amount; Ever is very precise about everything — for one dance lesson. Why? He is about to be feted at an awards ceremony where he’ll be expected to dance, and, Ever explains, “I’d like to be as inconspicuous as possible.’’
That’s clearly not easy for a guy who has nearly as many quirks as Sheldon, the character Jim Parsons plays on CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory.’’ Cariani’s Ever speaks in a rapid cadence devoid of the usual inflections; his face is perpetually scrunched up, narrowing his eyes to a squint, and he always seems to be bouncing, even on the rare occasions when he’s standing still. Ever has no friends and seems to have no one in his life, period.
Senga’s isolation is self-imposed. There’s an operation that could fix her torn-up knee, but doctors refused to perform it because she suffers from a rare and life-threatening allergy to anesthesia. They’ve told her to give up dancing and consider the leg brace she wears on her left leg to be a permanent accessory. Senga refuses to accept that advice, and is grimly searching for a doctor who will perform the surgery, but her condition is clearly taking a toll. She’s mired in drinking and brooding, and she’s recently ended a relationship with a man she’d promised to marry.
So: Ever and Senga, misfits who are made for each other? Maybe, maybe not. The key thing is how beautifully Cariani and Davis work together, whether Ever and Senga are engaged in combative repartee or overtaken by tender moments of mutual awakening. The role of Ever could easily lend itself to overacting, but Cariani delivers a rigorously disciplined performance. Davis, meanwhile, brings to Senga the emotional depth and nuance of personality that can only be achieved by an actress who understands her character inside and out.
A scene in which the contact-averse Ever finally manages to submit to a hug from Senga is almost unbearably poignant; the look on Davis’s face makes it clear that Senga needs that hug even more than Ever does. And when a dream sequence late in the play gives achingly lyrical form to this duo’s might-have-beens, you don’t want it to end.