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Arts and Entertainment

The Fountain Offers More Flamenco In New Play 'Heart Song'

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In the second act of Stephen Sachs's new play "Heart Song" at The Fountain Theatre, a longstanding professional friendship between two middle-aged women—one whose recently deceased mother was a Holocaust survivor, one whose Japanese-American parents were both forced into interment camps—almost comes to a bitter end as they argue over whose family, and whose ethnic community, suffered more during World War II. A third friend in the room, trying to make peace before it's too late, desperately tries to assure them that their argument is pointless and unnecessary. She's right, too. If only the playwright had heard her out at some point before opening night, the whole silly debate might have been avoided.

There's a good deal more sentimentality than drama in this drama about a flamenco support group in downtown Manhattan, which progresses more through its characters' personal revelations than through any actions they take. Still, director Shirley Jo Finney's lively, warm-blooded production, with an excellent cast and intermittent choreography by Maria Bermudez, serves the play so well that its shortcomings are largely obscured.

60-something Rochelle (Pamela Dunlap) is a distressed, wisecracking Upper West Side Jewish woman who gets strong-armed into trying out her trusty masseuse Tina (Tamlyn Tomita)'s flamenco class. Her first session doesn't go very well, but she is convinced to give it another shot by Daloris (Juanita Jennings), a cancer survivor with the requisite tough attitude, when the two of them bond at a bus stop after class.

At the second flamenco gathering Rochelle attends, the instructor Katarina (Bermudez) launches unprompted into the story of her own Gypsy community's tradition of persecution, mentioning specifically that they were second only to the Jews in suffering at the hands of the Nazis. This is speaking Rochelle's language, and by the end of the class session, she has succumbed to the collective spiritual embrace of the women in the group and gotten fully caught up in the dance.

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Inviting Tina and Daloris to dinner a short time later, Rochelle reveals painful details of her life as the daughter of a taciturn concentration camp survivor and relates the intense pressure she feels bearing down on her, a woman with no spiritual faith herself, as she tries to plan an upcoming religious ceremony honoring and commemorating her mother's life. Buoyed by the encouragement of her new friends, and implicitly by the transporting duende of their shared artistic pursuit, she manages to get it all together, concluding, "Who ever guessed that flamenco would make me a better Jew?"

And that's that. Fairly rich thematic material with a narrative drive stuck in second gear. But Dunlap, Jennings and Tomita are highly enjoyable company, and Sachs does imbue the banter between their characters with sharp dialogue and several good laugh lines. Dunlap is an absolute pistol as Rochelle, alternately caustic and vulnerable. The down-to-earth nobility of Jennings's Dalores is a source of strength throughout.

But for all we hear during the play about the mystical empowering effect of flamenco, we hardly get to witness this magic in action for ourselves. So even if its words are often pretty good, this "Heart Song" doesn't have any music.

"Heart Song" plays Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 8 and Sunday matinees at 2 (except the June 2 performance, which is at 7 in the evening instead of 2) through July 14. No performance June 6 and 7. Tickets $34 ($25 for students and seniors) or less with promo codes or (for some performances) $21.50.

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