NEW YORK — WHEN SHE DANCED Play by Martin Sherman. Directed by Tim Luscombe. A BABEL of tongues and a confusion of cross purposes surround the central figure of ``When She Danced,'' the new biographical tragicomedy at Playwrights Horizons. Martin Sherman has chosen a day in 1923 on which to take a woeful look at the plight of Isadora Duncan (Elizabeth Ashley) as she grapples to sustain her career, pay her bills, and cope with her disordered domestic state.
The major crisis facing the 45-year-old American dance pioneer is the location and financing of her next dance school. (Duncan established such schools in Paris, Moscow, and the United States.) The collaborative portrait by Mr. Sherman and Miss Ashley stresses Duncan's artistic credo and idealism as well as her fecklessness, the drive which impelled her as well as the chaos of her personal life. ``When She Danced'' takes place four years prior to Duncan's accidental death.
Ashley's Isadora moves through the day's crises in a manner by turns detached and fiercely involved. In addition to professional problems, she must grasp the need to shed her brutish Russian husband Sergei (Jonathan Walker), an overgrown adolescent. An alcoholic given to tantrums and threats of suicide, he is perfectly capable of using his poetic gift to torment his indulgent wife.
In terms of resurrecting her career as dance innovator, Duncan's crisis is financial. She meets it by selling off her furniture. The denial of an Austrian visa on the grounds of her alleged pro-communism rules out a hoped-for engagement in Vienna. Duncan thereupon explores the possibilities of an Italian connection - a turn of events that produces one of the play's most uproarious scenes. A lobster and champagne party to entertain an Italian consular official ends in disaster when (a) creditors arrive to cart off her dining table, and (b) the Italian turns out to be nothing more than a file clerk.
CONFOUNDING the general confusion is the fact that almost none of the characters - friends, lovers, servants, etc. - speaks the same language. A diffident Russian (Marcia Jean Kurtz) and a volatile Greek pianist (Robert Sean Leonard) do their best as interpreters. The translations, alas, are seldom simultaneous. In the end, notwithstanding occasional explanatory monologue asides, ``When She Danced'' doesn't quite equal the sum of its vivid parts.
The strengths of the production directed by Tim Luscombe owe much to the performances of Ashley, a figure of stature, grace, and temperament and, in her quieter moments, of eloquent composure. The surrounding cast is impressive both histrionically and linguistically. It includes Marcia Lewis as Isadora's longsuffering American friend, Jacqueline Bertrand as her equally patient maid, Robert Dorfman as the frock-coated Italian, and Clea Montville as a Swedish would-be acolyte.