'Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks'

The setup sounds awfully cute: A tart but lonely matron contracts the services of a mouthy gay dance instructor. Each scene revolves around a different dance -- waltz, fox trot, tango, etc. -- as our odd couple gets to know each other.

So far, so precious.

But the nice surprise is that Richard Alfieri's "Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks," now at the Falcon Theatre, manages to transcend its schematic premise and shift into something less packaged than its title suggests.

Lily Harrison (Constance Towers) has arranged for private dance lessons in her pristine St. Petersburg condo (all soothing salmon and white, courtesy of set designer Eric J. Larson). But she's less than charmed by instructor Michael Minetti (Jason Graae), who blows in with all the sweetness and delicacy of Simon Cowell. Southern-born Lily doesn't take kindly to his New York attitude, but Michael needs the money, and she wants the company, so cue the swing music.

The script pretends to have them constantly at each other's throats, but their fights aren't terribly convincing. It's quickly evident that these are similar souls guarding deep wounds from life's vicissitudes. It's confessions, not lessons, that ultimately interest Alfieri, and the dances (staged by Kay Cole) get rather short shrift. That said, it's fun to see the two in formal wear gliding around the set, irritating the inevitable downstairs neighbor with their footwork.

Despite its predictable lapses into schmaltz, "Six Lessons" manages to be a tender study of intimacy. Early on, Lily gives an affecting speech on the relentless invisibility of old age; later she notes the phrase "difficult people" is redundant. Alfieri goes to fairly dark places here, presenting two characters who've never known sustaining, safe love. At the same time, he wants to deliver easy laughs. Tonally, the play feels slightly out of balance, as if the writer can't decide how much he dares to make us think.

Director Arthur Allan Seidelman -- who also staged the world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse in 2001 -- modulates the uneven proceedings, so that what looks like a glib comedy deepens into something rather genuine. And he has a great leading lady as his co-conspirator.

Those who saw Towers waltz with a temperamental royal three decades ago in a celebrated Broadway revival of "The King and I" will be happy to know she has lost none of her grace and intelligent charm. Tall and lithe, she looks effortlessly regal in Helen Butler's costumes. "Six Dance Lessons" taps into her signature appeal: the tension between a patrician reserve and the intense feeling we sense she's suppressing. And her inherent lack of vanity sells some of Alfieri's "Golden Girls" humor.

Jason Graae's Michael leaps and snaps his way around Lily's living room, compulsively putting on a show. Acerbic and elfin, Graae gives the production its momentum. If his outsized comedy occasionally feels forced, he is the necessary foil for Lily's starched restraint. And in the play's quieter moments, reflecting on loneliness, regrets and mortality, both performers find a stillness rich with unspoken emotion. By their last dance, we have come to care for these partners, all too aware of how fleeting happiness -- and human connection -- can be.

Stoudt is a freelance writer.