Ballroom dancing can have a transformative effect on the lives of the clumsy and lonely and can be an outlet for the adventurous. Just think about the films "Strictly Ballroom," "Shall We Dance?" and "Mad Hot Ballroom ."
Now a play that waltzes with the same themes, Allan Knee's "Syncopation," is coming to Merrimack Repertory Theatre , starting Thursday.
In the play, a Polish Kosher butcher in 1911 Manhattan decides he's going to become a world-class ballroom dancer and places an ad for a partner. A shy Italian garment beader answers it, and the two learn to dance, enter competitions, and find each other and themselves.
"Henry is 38 years old," says actor Adam Pelty , who spoke by phone from New York about his role. "He sees his clock ticking for his idea for personal success. He wants to be like Vernon and Irene Castle . . . a dance partnership. And he knows how hard it's going to be."
Henry's partner, Anna (Stacey Harris ), he says, is there for different reasons. "She shows up not having any dream of doing this, but wanting something more from life . . . than being told who she is going to marry."
"Syncopation" premiered in 1999 at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre. This production, directed by Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill , comes from Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany, N.Y., where it played in 2005.
"Syncopation" is a play with music and dance, but it is not a musical. The two dance, Pelty estimates, 60 to 70 percent of the show. Periodically they stop and, through asides to the audience, discuss what they're thinking and feeling about their growing strength in dance and attachment to each other.
Knee likes writing plays that involve research -- he did the book for the musical "Little Women" that came to Boston last year, and he wrote the play "The Man Who Was Peter Pan ," which was the basis of the film "Finding Neverland ." For Knee, who wrote "Syncopation" in 1998 , the play's era was important.
"I like imagining going to a place that seems to be the start of something," he says by phone from New York. "This was the beginning of ballroom dancing and new music. It was just before the explosion of modern times after World War I." He uses period music in the play: early Gershwin, ragtime, and Erik Satie.
Knee was also fascinated by the changes occurring in society at the time. "It's an ambitious time, there is a lot of feeling of possibility," he says. "Certainly the women's movement was very important."
In the play, Anna starts to hang out with a group of what's called "the odd women" -- a term Knee found in a Victorian novel. They're women "who go their own way, beat their own drum, and don't wait for laws to be passed," he says. Through the course of the play, Anna discovers more about herself and finds that her possibilities in life are larger than she imagined.
Henry finds out similar things, says Pelty. "He's got a very unique dance sensibility. By the end you believe that they could be great."
Runs through April 15 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Lowell. Tickets: $15-$55; discounts available. 978-654-4MRT, merrimackrep.org.