Sex For Seniors

Mixed Emotions! is the name of Richard Baer's astoundingly popular comedy about two golden agers who fall in love. Since its February opening, the show has been a hit for the Broward Stage Door Theatre, which has extended it through late July. Mixed emotions might also describe a demanding theatergoer's reaction to the Stage Door itself. On the one hand, the fare ranges from tame to tired Broadway and off-Broadway hits. On the other, the productions are among the most sophisticated in South Florida, the directing intelligent and thoughtful, and the acting top-drawer.

The recently announced fall season helps to prove my point. Of the seven productions in the wings, three (Beau Jest; Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh; and The Immigrant) are designed to appeal to the aging Jewish audience that makes up a large portion of the theater's audience. One (The 1940s Radio Hour) trades on nostalgia, and two (La Cage Aux Folles and I Hate Hamlet) might be described as plays for people who notice what's playing in New York. (Make that 16 years ago in New York, in the case of La Cage.) While an eight-year-old Paul Rudnick play -- I Hate Hamlet -- may not be the sort of thing that gets me out of bed in the morning, I'll readily go see the Stage Door production of it, because I know the 1991 comedy will be seamless and fun to watch.

As for the play at hand, it's ready-made to appeal to the mostly retired audience in Coral Springs. Set entirely in the Central Park West apartment of Christine Millman, the comedy is something of a Harlequin Romance for women of a certain age. Christine, widowed for one year, is leaving New York for Miami, where she plans to share a condo with a woman friend. On the eve of her departure, Herman, her late husband's best friend, shows up and proposes. Herman, a widower of three years, is Jewish. Christine is an erstwhile Catholic who married a Jew. Their differences aren't religious so much as they are mired in temperament. That is to say, Mixed Emotions! is about a sentimental optimist courted by a grouchy realist.

When Christine wistfully imagines aloud that her husband and Herman's wife may have dined together in heaven, Herman's immediate response is, "I hope it wasn't in her apartment." Why? "The two things she was never known for were parachute jumping and her cooking." When it comes to Herman's marriage proposal, however, Christine is the realist. Among Herman's reasons that the two should wed is the fact that they share a warm affection. As Herman reminds Christine, "A warm affection can blossom into love." Of course, as he also points out, "It's a large leap from warm affection to sharing my bed." To which Christine replies, "To be perfectly honest, I feel a little squeamish at the thought of drinking from your glass."

Christine's resistance is slowly broken down. Herman persuades Christine to spend her last night in New York having dinner with him. Unbeknownst to her, he wages a campaign of bribery in hopes of getting the moving men to walk off the job and further stall her departure. After dinner Christine invites Herman up for a nightcap, but they also have a fight. Herman won't stop kvetching about the price of dinner. He makes a pass at her. She fends him off. She offers to pay for her half of the dinner. By the end of the evening, however, fortune smiles on both Herman and Christine, and by the time the curtain goes down on Act One, both parties are well on their way to sexual gratification.

Yes, indeed. Sexual gratification. For my money, the greatest charm of Mixed Emotions! is not its fantasy element of allowing its characters to find suitable new partners after losing a long-time spouse -- though widows everywhere will appreciate its honest discussion of the differences in fate between single men and single women. In particular, Christine describes the horror of going to dinner parties at which men are so lopsidedly underrepresented that, compared to women, they seem like blue-chip stocks. And as if that weren't unfair enough, she adds, it's socially acceptable for men to date women many decades younger, while older women who date younger men are seen as ridiculous.

No, the thrill of Mixed Emotions! is that it actually allows its protagonists to have a sex life. Christine may declare, "I'm a Catholic grandmother. I don't kiss on the first date." But her actions belie her claim. When you consider that the typical image of men and women over age 60, TV's Golden Girls notwithstanding, tends to be that of doddering, sexless half-wits, the mere fact that it acknowledges the senior libido earns Mixed Emotions! some Brownie points. That it also thrusts Christine and Herman into an authentic dramatic situation saves the play from feeling contrived. They fall in love while dancing to "Sentimental Journey," a tune that evokes powerful sensations from each partner.

Credit Barbara Bradshaw's delightful turn as Christine for making Mixed Emotions! a sentimental journey we can root for. Her performance is fluid and graceful while at the same time exuding a powerful intensity. At one point Herman describes someone as sweet but "covering up a killer instinct." This description nearly fits Bradshaw's depiction of Christine and explains much of the appeal of her performance. Howard Elfman plays Herman as a libidinous Bugs Bunny. He's got about as much appeal as the icky Mr. Burns on The Simpsons, whom he somewhat resembles, particularly when making an unwanted pass. Together these two fine actors feed off each other, letting their characters stir up their own unlikely chemistry through two hours.

At the helm of this polished production is Genie Croft Kahn, who directs with a sure hand and a flair for comedy. In addition to maneuvering the two principals, she marches the two moving men, played by Ira Phillips and Noah B. Jordan, on and off the stage with precision. Of the two supporting roles, Phillips' larger-than-life performance as Ralph, the experienced mover who has his own eye on Christine, rings with authenticity and charm. Phillips' younger colleague Jordan, who plays Chuck, tends to steal focus from the other actors and thus is slightly less charming.

Michael Amico's Central Park West set design is handsome, even if, with its airiness, furniture choice, and color scheme, it more resembles a Florida condo than a New York apartment. At first glance you might think Christine had already started decorating with a Miami palette. The two leads, however, have all their colors exactly right.

Mixed Emotions!
Written by Richard Baer. Directed by Genie Croft Kahn. Starring Barbara Bradshaw, Howard Elfman, Ira Phillips, and Noah B. Jordan. Through July 25. Broward Stage Door Theatre, 8036 W. Sample Rd., Coral Springs, 954-344-7765.

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Robin Dougherty