Life is a banquet, Auntie Mame used to say, and most poor suckers are starving to death. Isadora Duncan doesn’t even have a table to eat off of–she had to sell it, along with most of the rest of her furniture. But that doesn’t stop her from feasting at the banquet of Life in Martin Sherman’s tragicomedy When She Danced.

Actually, tragicomedy isn’t quite right–farcical-bathetic is more apt. Taking as his subject the legendary dancer and the coterie of friends, servants, and inamoratas that surrounded Isadora in the last few years of her life, Sherman jarringly juxtaposes broad screwball humor and heavy-handed sentimentality. In this 1990 play, receiving its midwest premiere at Interplay under David Perkovich’s direction, his aim is to evoke the volatility of an absurd and daring life-style–and along the way to remind us of the precious ephemerality and fragility of the special kind of artist whose medium is not so much a discipline (dance, music, whatever) as a lack of discipline.

Such artists are the stuff of legend, whether their name is Isadora Duncan or Arthur Rimbaud or Judy Garland or John Lennon. They exert an intense hold on the imagination, though their grip sometimes seems disproportionate to their lasting achievements. This is especially true in the case of someone like Isadora, an extreme eccentric even by the standards of the particularly eccentric world of dance, who worked in an age before technology was able to accurately preserve the artistic experience. In this day of videocassettes and laser discs, it’s good to be reminded that it wasn’t very long ago that the only way to see an artist perform was to go see her live, and that the only way a dancer could practice to a Chopin etude was to find a pianist to play it for her.

Set in Paris in 1923 (the high ceiling and vaulted arches of Interplay’s theater nicely accommodate set designer Andrew J. Dahlman’s muted rendering of the mansion Duncan inherited from her lover sewing-machine mogul Paris Singer), When She Danced depicts one brief, intense period in Isadora’s life, when she was living hand-to-mouth with her husband, the demented but gorgeous Russian poet Sergei Alexandrovich Yesenin. As in a David Mamet play, the action of When She Danced revolves around an event that is meticulously planned except for one key detail that makes the whole structure fall apart: Isadora is trying to arrange a concert in Venice to raise money to send Sergei back to Russia; attempting to woo the support of the Italian government, she throws a dinner party for an Italian diplomat, which she can pay for only by selling her dinner table. But Isadora’s communist connections (she had met Sergei in Moscow after the Soviet government invited her to start a dance school there) make her persona non grata in fascist Italy, a fact abundantly clear to everyone but her. And in any case, the “diplomat” for whom she throws the party is merely a low-level bureaucrat; she took him to be important because of his officious demeanor–the flaky rebel has been seduced by the image of power.

Portraying Isadora’s helter-skelter household, When She Danced tries to be sometimes madcap and sometimes just plain mad. On the surface, it’s an escapist entertainment about a lovable kook–remarkably derivative, in fact, of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s stage version of Patrick Dennis’s Auntie Mame. Just as Mame had her bosom buddy, the bitchy actress Vera Charles, so Isadora has her tart-tongued best friend Mary Desti to trade quips with; just as Mame had her prim but adoring aide-de-camp Agnes Gooch, Isadora has the shy but star-struck Miss Belzer to look after her; just as Mame had the roguish poet Brian causing trouble, so Isadora must cope with the temperamental and amorous Sergei; just as Mame had to cozy up to stuffy Mr. Babcock, so Isadora must dazzle the boring bureaucrat Luciano; and just as Mame had her adoring nephew Patrick to instruct in the ways of the world, so Isadora has Alexandros, a gay Greek pianist who comes to Isadora as a curious fan and leaves her a transformed disciple.

But Sherman–best known for Bent, his drama about the Nazi persecution of homosexuals–has a more serious agenda. His comic extravagances generally have serious underpinnings. The opening scene, in which the great dancer is seen clumsily extracting herself from between the legs of her passed-out husband, is played for broad physical comedy, but it also seeks to reveal the debilitating dependence of this doomed relationship. When Isadora fumbles frivolously for a scarf to wear, we are meant to think of her shocking death just a few years later, when she was strangled after her scarf got tangled in the wheels of a car. When Sergei melodramatically threatens to hang himself, Isadora brushes him off with an ironic put-down–“He never kicks the chair away,” she drawls. But, the program reminds us, Sergei did in fact kill himself shortly after their breakup. Though a running joke in the play concerns the inability of many of the characters to understand each other–some 30 percent of the dialogue is in Russian, Greek, Italian, French, or Swedish–the language barrier can lead abruptly to pain, as when Isadora learns that the beautiful-sounding Russian poem Sergei has been declaiming to her is in fact a cruel reminder of the death by drowning of her children; the revelation marks the inevitable ending of this marriage made in Babel.

In Isadora’s dancing, it wasn’t the movement that was important, but the feeling within it; the same is true of the dialogue here. When She Danced is a study of lives lived on the edge, and it demands performances that capture the characters’ dangerous intensity. But Perkovich’s stiff, lackluster staging makes the play timorous when it should be tempestuous, feathery when it should be flamboyant, well-meaning when it should be defiant. Portraying Isadora as aging, broke, and depressed, Dorothy Milne fails to convey the great inner power this woman must have had even in decline–and certainly must have to make us interested in watching her. It doesn’t help that the love of her life is such an uninteresting lout: Shole Milos’s Sergei is all noisy bluster, a Russian Ricky Ricardo on the rampage.

Of the supporting cast, Frank Langella look-alike Paul Stroili is an engaging Alexandros, but dull pacing dampens the role’s potential for bright comedy. Caitlin Hart (Isadora’s friend Mary), Paul Mullins (the bureaucrat Luciano), Pamela Webster (Isadora’s condescending French maid), and Cheryl Lynn Golemo (a misguided dance student) are stolidly competent, but nothing more (though Golemo’s nymphlike dance in ersatz Duncan style is cleverly choreographed by Milos). The show’s one remarkable performance comes from Susan Philpot as Miss Belzer, the shy Russian woman hired to translate for Sergei. The depth and complexity of feeling Philpot conveys in a few subtle but captivating strokes–a pulled-in gesture here, a tentative but radiant smile there–embodies the quality of being, not merely doing, for which Isadora Duncan strived.