Bars and restaurants are often disaster areas.  The floor of a café can be a cavalcade of dismay.  The stood up, the broken up, the lovelorn, the hopelessly inebriated and the would-be heroes, the frustrated rockers and out-of-control dancers: they’re all hanging somewhere in the shadowed corners of the public house.  Going out means putting yourself in the way of other people’s heartbreak — unless you’re heartbroken yourself.  Should that be you, you may find yourself right where you belong.

“No Place Like Home,” a clever and emotionally effulgent dance and dinner theater piece by Morgaine De Leonardis, gives us a drunk, and a down-cast, a powerless intermediary, and an attention-starved waitress with showbiz ambitions crashing like a meteor through a version of LCD Soundsystem’s “New York, I Love You.”  This all happens in the intimate confines of the Box Cafe (115 Palisade Ave.), a Heights eatery with tables right on top of the action in the narrow aisle where the dancers bring their private drama to life in vigorous and occasionally precarious movement.  

Images by Gail Schulman website: Instagram: @theregoesgail

The cast of five performers plus De Leonardis spent the two hour performance (and three-course dinner) right on top of the eighteen show-goers.  Sometimes they were mere millimeters from the seats.  Desperation radiated from these characters straight on to the plates of penne pasta.  But no matter how frenetic it got, the dancers were always approachable and even lovable.  Their predicaments were easy to sympathize with, because you’ve been there yourself.   De Leonardis, recent winner of an individual grant from the Arts and Culture Trust Fund, points up the paradox of the bar and café: somehow, proximity to all that nightclub misery makes you feel better. It’s convivial as a party and comfortable as a long sulk in an easy chair.  

Many theater performances strain to erase the fourth wall.  “No Place Like Home” barely had walls at all.  The performers constantly interacted with the small audience, sitting at the tables and periodically pulling viewers aside for one-on-one conferences. (Your correspondent was taken behind the bar for a five-minute tea party with Rachel De Leonardis, the actress who sang the LCD Soundsystem song.)  At times the experience took on some of the character of a private murder mystery party, with the line between observation and participation consistently and deliberately blurred by the cast. This is a dance show with the spirit of a role-playing game, and if you go tonight or on Wednesday the 10th — it’s $75 for dinner plus dessert and the show — you’re advised to surrender to the logic of the piece and act the part of an eavesdropper at a melodramatic bar scene.  

The creator did her part in dispelling the distance between actor and viewer by waiting tables, showing patrons to their seats, and serving as an enthusiastic food runner. She discharged these responsibilities with the ease of a seasoned food service professional, which she must have been at one point and, perhaps, still is.  Her understanding of dining etiquette and  kitchen timing is an asset.  De Leonardis managed to tuck most of her dramatic action between the appetizer and dinner course. But vocalist Regina Ippolito, who served as an occasional narrator, lit the wick with a brief set of torch songs.  Her skillful renditions of Great American Songbook numbers were empathetically sung, and set the mood as neatly as the candles on the tables and the faerie lights did. 

Images by Gail Schulman website: Instagram: @theregoesgail

The small company made so much use of the restaurant space that it often felt that The Box was De Leonardis’s secret protagonist.  Sometimes, the dancing was pure restaurant parkour. Performers careened around the tables, stood on cushions and on the bar, draped themselves across seats, and disappeared into the kitchen like pool balls dropping into pockets.  More often, it was as subtle as a quick flick of the antique lights by the tables or a pause to smell the flowers by the door.  The Box, it turns out, is an adorable spot — romantic enough to serve as a plausible setting for heavy-duty flirtation and idiosyncratic and busy enough to be an impromptu prop shop.  They also serve a mean chocolate cake with raspberries. 

De Leonardis has assembled an endearing cast for “No Place Like Home,” and the dancing is not dissimilar to what a theatergoer might see at a bigger and more established setting like Nimbus Arts. The distinctive sign language of modern dance is present and fully legible: the stretches, the tailspins, the sinuous bends signifying moments of mutability, the tugs on invisible ropes and sudden, flailing grasps for a human connection that isn’t forthcoming.  Yet because of the immersive quality of the show — the illusion of a typical night out that De Leonardis generates — “No Place Like Home” worked best when the performers moved in ways reminiscent of actual bar patrons.  

That meant the intoxicated lurch across the floor by Kimiko Tanabe, whose panicked, dumbstruck expression and battle to maintain her balance will be familiar to anybody who has ever had to care for an alcoholic at a watering hole.  It also meant the gleeful exchange, full of modern steps and giddy choreography, between Devika Chandani and Shiloh Hodges.  There we were in the bar with them, witnessing a genuine human connection between a pair of wounded people, reaching for each other, moving together in concert, anticipating each other’s actions as a gesture of solidarity and goodwill.  It was the sort of interaction that only happens during a night out on the town, and a reminder that when the circumstances are right, a café is as familiar, and friendly, and horrifying, as home.

Photos by Gail Schulman

Tris McCall has written about art, architecture, performance, politics, and public culture for many publications, including the Newark Star-Ledger, the Bergen Record, Jersey Beat, the Jersey City Reporter,...