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Gender Politics

Broward Stage Door didn't have to make The Odd Couple edgy. It didn't have to drag the thing in any exciting new directions. It didn't even have to top the Art Carney/Walter Matthau/Jack Klugman/Tony Randall/what have you incarnations that have come before. At Broward Stage Door, all the punters wanted was a competent reading, a respectful treatment, a soft warm gush of memories of pleasanter times in plusher theaters. That's all. What they got was an hour and a half of God-awful wailing piped out of a P.A. system that was unable to cope with Ken Clement's industrial-strength voicebox. On Friday, May 1, many walked out at intermission; others said they'd have liked to if their morals didn't forbid it.

To put it simply: Ken Clement does not need a mic. He is the biggest marquee name Broward Stage Door has boasted in a while, and his pipes have adequately filled larger spaces without any electronic amplification. In The Odd Couple, he plays Oscar Madison, a man not known for soft-spokenness, and as he yells and screams and brays his frustration at the hapless Felix Ungar, subwoofers across South Florida burp and hiss and buzz in terror. The air in the theater fills with whoomps and thuds and crackles, and aged patrons clamp their mitts over their ears.

It's a pity, because Clement makes a damned good Oscar. Smart, sly, and passionate, his Oscar is a happy and unpretentious mammal, a being who knows what he likes and isn't ashamed to pursue it. And Dan Kelley — who, from the back row, moves and sounds a bit like Conan O'Brien in the middle of a hair-wiggling conniption — is a fine, frenetic (though perhaps too flamboyant) Felix Ungar. Remember the sinus-clearing noises Tony Randall used to make on The Odd Couple sitcom? Kelley's great at those.

The Odd Couple is the story of two recently divorced and utterly mismatched men who find themselves sharing a flat in New York. This being the original Neil Simon play — as opposed to the sitcom spinoff or the various ethnic or female-inhabited versions it inspired — the plot really is that simple: Anal-retentive neatnik Ungar invades Madison's primeval man-cave, and much acrimony ensues. I think a big part of the show's appeal, when it premiered on Broadway in 1965, was the novelty of its double XY chromosome domestic dynamic. Hard as it is to believe, there was a time when it felt slightly naughty to witness two men living together as de facto husband and wife and something captivating about the notion that two men sharing a home would develop the same angst and passive-aggressive tics as a man and woman. No longer. That paradigm is gone and impossible to recapture, though Stage Door tries.

The unnecessary P.A. system is symbolic of the company's whole approach to the attempt: Every gesture is big, broad, and often as overdone as the ruined London broil that sends Felix into a tizzy in act two. The men who gather to play poker in Madison's home — Murray, Vinnie, Speed, and Roy — are played by mostly competent actors who seem to be playing to the back row of some vastly larger venue. Beneath the crackling speakers, these men ham and crank and work and work, and you soon feel tired on their behalf. The best moments in this Odd Couple arise when the Pigeon sisters — Englishwomen recently relocated to New York, played by Katy O'Donnell and Sarah O'Kelly — descend on Ungar and Madison's flat for cocktails and flirtations. After the all-male parade of Ungar, Madison, and their poker buddies, the Pigeon sisters' charm and soft cooing are a blast of cool, perfumed air into what was getting to be a very loud and sweaty auditorium. Except for the ladies' brief flight across the stage, this Odd Couple is undone by the very thing that once made it successful: an excess of testosterone.

To the northeast, at the Women's Theatre Project, a show is having a different set of problems for similar reasons. Now, I'm not so un-P.C. as to suggest that men are a necessary component in a play, but I will say that The Interview could benefit from some traditionally masculine qualities: aggression, swagger, grit. In The Interview, the often-transcendent Patti Gardner plays Ann Meshenberg, a volunteer with the Western Reserve Oral History Project who is out to collect the testimonies of a heretofore-uninterviewed Holocaust survivor (the play is set in 1995, when there were a lot more of them around). Gardner's character is supposed to be nervous about her task — this is her first interview — but she's also supposed to have a steely streak that her subject, Bracha, notices and admires. Gardner evinces this not at all. Her Meshenberg is scared, unfocused, and inexplicably rude, snapping at Bracha at odd moments, rushing out of her home in such a hurry that you'd think Bracha broke wind, and asking Bracha intimate questions about her Holocaust experience in a tone that sounds like an accusation.

Harriet Oser, who plays Bracha, is more impressive. As she begins telling Meshenberg her story — born in Poland, imprisoned at Auschwitz — you get the sense that she's telling these stories primarily to herself. She has the faraway, spooked look of someone accessing memories she fears but cannot help unspooling. More than that, Oser uses her hands in a marvelously affecting way. She can communicate pain with a single up-turned palm, like opera legend Maria Callas.

When Bracha moved to the United States, she and her husband had two children: a son, Manny, who died in 1968, and a daughter, Rifka. Rifka is still alive, but she and Bracha are estranged. Still, Rifka is present in the room, played by Irene Adjan, who spends most of her time at a piano in the corner of the theater. Occasionally Bracha has imaginary conversations with her daughter, for which Adjan rises from the piano and walks to the stage. Adjan is another oft-transcendent actress, but she, like Gardner, is weightless here. There is no real feeling in these conversations, no sense that she has entered her little role and given it independent life. Adjan sounds like there's someplace that she'd rather be. Both she and Gardner spend the show backing away from their roles and their audience.

Maybe it's because I'm a man, but I want to be attacked by a play. I want actors to go for my jugular, to rumble with me in the aisles. The Interview, which is ultimately a play about the way history sticks around and impacts us through generations, never works up the verve to impact us even in the moment of performance. I can't say what would save it at this point, but a P.A. system probably wouldn't hurt.

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Brandon K. Thorp

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