I Won’t Dance by Oliver Hailey (1932-93) is a three-handed play set in modern-day Los Angeles. And since it is a modern play, we’d better have a ‘strong language alert’ to begin with. It’s also quite a grim, depressing story.
The action begins shortly after a husband and wife have been murdered. One of the suspects is Dom, brother of the male victim, who lives in the same house. They have treated him badly, but there’s one overriding reason why it would be difficult for him to have done it: he spends most of his life in a wheelchair.
Sometimes I Won’t Dance is called a murder whodunit, but in fact we never learn who killed Buddy and his wife, because, as far as the play is concerned, it just doesn’t matter. This is a play about being a cripple: Hailey drew on the experiences of his own brother, a paraplegic, to portray the frustrations of Dom’s condition, unable to walk without braces, unable to dance, loved only for money and dependent on others to look after his ordinary physical needs. He’s just starting to experiment with sex, getting over his embarrassment at the fact that he can’t go on top like a real man. He tries it on with his sister-in-law, Lil, another suspect, but his regular partner is Kay Rublesky, older than him, ‘but terribly attractive’. She’s an out-of-work actress employed by an insurance company, and making money on the side as a hooker – hence her arrangement with Dom.
Dom’s fantasies of mobility eventually lead him to roll his wheelchair onto the freeway, whereupon, unsurprisingly, he gets tailgated by a car. That only makes matters worse: now he will never walk again even with the braces. His reaction is to make a false confession to the murder – but the police don’t believe him and only keep him under house arrest, with visitors allowed. In fact, not much different from the rest of his life…
His first caller in the final scene of the play is Kay, who has just been to the funeral and is wearing a black suit, but brightened with white trim to make it ‘a determinedly chipper mourning ensemble’. But he wants to break off their association – and what’s more, he wants a refund of the money he believes Buddy, his dead brother, paid her to sleep with him. She insists that there was ‘no charge for cripples’, but he chases her round the room in his wheelchair, picking up the extension arm he uses for reaching up to high objects and snapping at her with it, then snatching away her purse.
KAY: Have you always been this way about money?
Dom holds out the purse to taunt her. When she goes for it, he grabs her, turns her over his lap.
DOM (spanking her): I don’t know – I never had any. I always rode on my charm … and Buddy’s money. Now Buddy’s gone and you tell me my charm’s not worth a fuck.
KAY (getting up indignantly): Don’t use that word in front of me. I don’t like it! (Then reacting to the spanking, rubbing her bottom.) You still have his money. And plenty of it!
DOM: The hell I do. I didn’t inherit a dime.
He then throws the purse to the floor and uses the extension arm to pinch her bottom when she bends down to pick it up.
It turns out that in fact he has inherited the money after all: he was just testing Lil and Kay to see if they would love him for himself, a test they both failed…
The play was first staged in 1980, in a little-documented tryout at Buffalo, New York, but was then picked up by the legendary Broadway impresario David Merrick for a production at the Helen Hayes Theatre, New York. The director was Tom O’Horgan, whose previous work included Hair and Jesus Christ, Superstar, and it opened on May 10, 1981, with a Sunday matinee performance. Dom was played by David Selby, best known for his long-running role as Quentin the werewolf in the Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows. Kay was 45-year-old Arlene Golonka, best known as Millie Swanson, the love interest in The Andy Griffith Show. Here she is:
And here they are together in the play:
I can’t show you a photo of the spanking: pictures from the production are few and far between, which is probably partly attributable to the fact that it closed on May 10, 1981. Yes, it never reached a second performance after a mauling by the New York theater critics! ‘If you’re going to endure Mr. Hailey’s preposterous play,’ said the New York Times, ‘might I suggest that you arrive at the theater armed with ear plugs and a good book? This play could not be more incoherent if its scenes were intentionally played out of sequence.’ Ouch!
The paper had this to say about Kay:
‘The hooker is a bit more intriguing, if only because she gets to deliver Mr. Hailey’s six or seven funny, if utterly irrelevant, jokes about Hollywood and showbiz. (In her nightmares, Kay says, she pictures herself bludgeoning people to death with a copy of Uta Hagen’s book Respect for Acting.) While by no means subtle, Miss Golonka does earn our profound sympathy in a role that requires her, among other indignities, to submit to a sound spanking by Mr Selby. Indeed, by suffering corporal as well as intellectual punishment in I Won’t Dance, this actress almost convinces the audience that it’s getting off easy.’
The bad reviews killed not only the production, but also the author’s faith in the theater. But his play wasn’t stone dead. The script was published in 1982, and it was intermittently revived over the ensuing decade, including at the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre, San Diego, in 1987, directed by Jean Hauser, with D. B. Novak as Dom and Linda Libby as Kay, who is said to have stolen the show. Here she is:
Other notable Doms over the years have included Greg Mullavey (Gene Dynarski Theatre, Los Angeles, 1983), and the television star David Strickland, in a production which has so far eluded identification, but is worth mentioning simply because Strickland’s other stage appearances included the title role in Danny and the Deep Blue Sea – so he was an actor who got to play two spanking scenes in the course of his short life.
An attempted high-profile revival in 1991, by the Rivoli Stage Company at the William Carlos Williams Center for the Arts, Rochester, earned the play another merciless drubbing from the New York Times. This time Brent Black was Dom and the women’s roles were played by Judy Chesnutt and Laura Margolis (but it’s unclear which was which). The chances of it getting yet another chance today, nearly a quarter-century on, seem slim – but you never know…