Penny, a woman in her early 40s, has been searching her entire life for the ideal ballroom dance partner. The truth, though, is that she has really been searching for the ideal mate.
That’s the premise of “The Crawl Space Waltz,” a play written by Alexandria playwright and actress Paula Alprin and directed by her husband, Brian Alprin, and now playing at the Old Town Theater.
Paula Alprin describes the play as a “dramedy,” a combination of drama and comedy. The play is a “memory play” about Penny's various experiences with failed relationships.
“She realizes that she just really needed herself,” said Alprin, who stars in the play as Penny. Actor Paul Andrew Morton is the only other actor in “Crawl Space,” playing the 12 characters that Penny describes from her life.
The play was originally performed in April at the National Theater, in the District, as one of the “Monday Night at the National” shows, productions presented twice only, for free.
“Crawl Space” caught the attention of Mark Anderson, owner of the Old Town Theater, and started its month-long run there Oct. 2. “I thought the writing was top-notch,” Anderson said of the play. “This search for the perfect dance partner was a metaphor for the perfect fix for life.”
“CRAWL SPACE” MARKS a departure from the regular fare at the Old Town, which generally performs comedies. Anderson said he went for the play anyway, not only because he enjoyed it so much, but because he wanted to support local Alexandria artists like Alprin, and to try something different.
“We typically go straight for the laughs and nothing but laughs for 90 minutes,” Anderson said. “This show is very different, very dramatic, very moving.”
Alprin said the original idea was to write a play about relationships, but she knew she wanted somehow to incorporate her interest in Latin ballroom dance, such as the mambo, samba, cha-cha, merengue and salsa, which figure prominently in the play.
She’s taken lessons in many different types of dance throughout her life, including Irish step, tap, flamenco, and belly dancing. Alprin and her husband stress the metaphor of Penny's search for the ideal mate through searching for the ideal dance partner.
“[Penny has] a series of difficult relationships, but they all seem to have a dance aspect, and that's one of the unifying themes of the play,” said Brian Alprin.
Paula Alprin wrote the play six or seven years ago as a five-person play but never submitted it anywhere. Later, she changed it to a two-person play, with an actress playing Penny and one actor playing all of the other characters she remembers.
“I instinctively felt it should be a two-person play,” she said.
ONE UNUSUAL ASPECT of the play is the fact that it was directed by Paula's husband of 16 years, who had no previous experience directing.
A lawyer who studied English at Yale under such critics as Harold Bloom and Cleanth Brooks, Brian Alprin found the faculties he developed under those tutors useful in directing.
Although he read several college and drama-school texts on directing, his experience as a theatergoer was the most useful tool, he said, experience that gave him firsthand knowledge of what an audience enjoys, and what makes a play good.
“I was privileged to have a great deal of insight into the meaning of the play,” he said. “That helped me bring it to stage in a way true to the text.”
Paula was the one who first encouraged him to direct. She found that his comments about plays they had seen together were very directorial, and for many years she thought that he had a talent for directing. She also said she thinks his talent is on par with many of the professional directors she's worked with.
“He's got an excellent bedside manner of dealing with actors, because actors are very sensitive,” Paula said. However, she also made it clear to him from the beginning that she wanted him to direct her fairly, as if she wasn't his wife.
“There was that level of comfort knowing that he really cares about me,” said Paula, but it didn't feel strange at all working with her husband but rather very natural. He agreed.
“I could see directing one's wife being a disadvantage for some people,” Brian said. “But Paula is an extremely hard worker, whoever the director is.”
He has never acted or written a play, nor does he have any interest in doing so, but he describes himself as “a voracious reader of drama” and says that he and Paula are avid theater-goers.
When one of his colleagues at his law firm asked him how he found the time to direct a play while working as a lawyer, he responded, “I have no time to [direct], and I do it anyway.” Paula admires Brian's ability to interpret the same line many different ways, even though he didn't read any of the play until it was done.
“Paula thinks that I've discovered things in the text that even she was not aware of,” Brian said. “Even though I didn't participate in the writing, I've been able to bring some ideas to the play that were always there but maybe wouldn't have been brought out.”
“CRAWL SPACE” ISN’T Paula Alprin’s first play. As a student at NYU, she wrote and performed a play called “Millicent.”
A local television station saw her perform, which led to a part in the TV show “The Cheever Stories,” playing a character called “wife by train.” Although she was on screen for several minutes, she can't remember if she had any lines.
Her other play-writing credits include a musical for children titled “Hope,” called “Hope, the Human Doll” and “The New Doll in Town” in other incarnations. She wrote the music and lyrics for the musical and had a bit part.
She also wrote a play called “Tales from the Umbilical,” which was produced by The Source Theater in Washington, D.C., under the new title “The Wedding Play.” Many of her other plays have been picked up by television and community theaters.
One experience she hasn't often had is being able to sit back and watch her own work being performed, since she so often performs in it. She has seen performances of her musical “Hope,” as well as “Tales from the Umbilical” at Source Theater.
“It was definitely like being a mother,” Alprin said about watching a performance of “Hope.” “There was anxiety, of course … but it was a very invigorating feeling … it was wonderful to see other people bringing to life my show.”
ALPRIN ALSO WROTE a collection of poetry, essays and short stories called “Flying Lessons,” which were her reactions to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Although she isn't interested in publishing the collection, she performed it on New Year's Eve at Friendship Firehouse as part of First Night Alexandria.
“After Sept. 11, I was very upset,” Paula said. “My way of having my own personal therapy was to write it out.”
Now, Alprin is in the recent independent film “Good-bye Merry-Go-Round,” which she describes as a “Woody Allen-esque” film in which the male protagonist finds everything goes wrong with his relationships. She plays Janet, an ex-girlfriend that he pursues after several decades.
Like her husband, Alprin has also had the opportunity to study under a famous name. At NYU, she studied playwriting under the playwright Terrence McNally. To get into his class, potential students had to be interviewed by McNally, who accepted about 20-25 students. However, she describes him as being very natural and not at all intimidating.
“I honestly don't know if he was in the habit of acing people, but I got a B,” Paula said. Despite that, Paula certainly has left an impression on the theater-goers at The Old Town Theater with “The Crawl Space Waltz,” even at a theater that has traditionally been doing comedy.
“The [audience members] who have been open to something new and different and a little more avant-garde have really enjoyed it,” Anderson said.