Gender Render

Men and women speak different languages. Many of us suspected this even before we read Deborah Tannen's best seller You Just Don't Understand, which documents the phenomenon. Even if her book brought no big surprises, it provided some comfort: Why hold ourselves responsible for a communication breakdown with the opposite sex when they just can't decipher the words coming out of our mouths. What is remarkable is that we insist on communicating anyway. I guess we want something from each other, and that drives the search for a common language.

The frustrations, humor, and possibilities of this search are illuminated in two plays currently gracing South Florida stages: Lanford Wilson's sweet and unabashedly hopeful Talley's Folly, set in Lebanon, Missouri, 50 years ago, is at New Theatre in Coral Gables. Area Stage on Miami Beach presents Theresa Rebeck's turbocharged Spike Heels, set in present-day Boston. If these fine productions are an accurate gauge, men and women have grown exceedingly less polite with each other over the last five decades.

Playwright Lanford Wilson made his name in the 1960s in off-off Broadway theaters, including the now defunct Caffe Cino and the still very much alive La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, with plays such as Balm in Gilead. He went on to found New York's Circle Repertory Company and have a major hit with The Hot L Baltimore before beginning his trilogy of plays set in his Missouri hometown. Talley's Folly is second in the trilogy. It centers on the relationship between Sally Talley, a wonderful character who also appears in the other two plays, and her suitor, Matt Friedman, who comes to ask for Sally's hand.

The play is introduced by Matt as a "a no-holds-barred romance" set to the rhythm of a waltz, yet Michael Gioia wisely and affectionately directs it as a tentative two-step between lonely outsiders who never have believed they are destined for happiness. At the age of 28, Sally considers herself a liberal college graduate, while her conservative family thinks of her as a radical old maid. Matt is a Jewish accountant ("communist infidel," according to the Talley clan) with an Eastern European history he is reluctant to divulge. They meet when Matt is on vacation in Lebanon; they rendezvous, against Sally's desire, a year later. All the action takes place in a Victorian boathouse that resembles a gazebo A the folly of the play's title, built by an eccentric Talley uncle -- over the course of 90 minutes, during which Matt refuses to leave until Sally gives him the answer he wants to hear.

Wilson's one-act duet has far more talk than dramatic action. Its success depends on how well the actors make the audience care about the characters. Pamela Roza is superb as the feisty Sally, so effortless in the role I never doubted for a moment the grace, stubbornness, and vulnerability she brings to both her resistance to Matt and her movement toward him. Larry Jurrist is not always as compelling in his depiction of Matt as awkward, single-minded, and a bit too earnest, with an uneven European-Jewish accent that is irritating at times. Yet the most powerful moment of the play belongs to him. His re-creation of his family's odyssey through Europe is emotional and riveting; I was literally transported from the theater to the scene of the terrible circumstances he relays.

Gary Douglas's lovely set, Mikuni Ohmae's lighting, Steve Shapiro's sound design, and Lea Farr's costumes create a soft, midcentury, Midwest summer evening -- a perfect backdrop to the connection Roza and Jurrist forge, despite evasions, reluctance, and the pain of the past.

An entirely different style of courtship ensues in Spike Heels. Forget the surrey with the fringe on top. It's pedal-to-the-metal time in Theresa Rebeck's ferocious comedy, given a high-octane production under Maria Banda-Rodaz's sharp and sassy direction. The two-step has become a slam dance, and the prescription for romance is take two aspirin with your Scotch and call my lawyer in the morning.

Eggheaded academic Andrew meets his outspoken, working-class, upstairs neighbor, Georgie, at the mailboxes in their apartment building and decides she needs to be saved. He feeds her books and rescues her from waitressing by getting her work as secretary to his lawyer friend, Edward. But Georgie doesn't quite transform the way Andrew plans. The Iliad reminds her of Sidney Sheldon, and she gets into a screaming match with Edward, throws a pencil at him, and storms off her job. And then there is Lydia, Andrew's fiancee and Edward's former girlfriend, who rounds out the quartet. How many fires can blaze and be put out in two acts?

Unfamiliar with this play and with playwright Rebeck's work, and knowing that she has written for -- gasp! A television, I was not sure what to expect. I'm happy to report that Rebeck is not only clever, she is also smart. Her characters are simultaneously repellent and likable -- in other words, they're believable. She shrewdly examines women's sexuality and power, sexual harassment, class struggles, and the litigious nature of modern relationships, all without betraying a shred of political correctness. Rather than retreating to a position, she lays bare the contradictory sides of an issue. A recurring paradoxical image throughout the comedy illustrates this: Georgie persists in wearing spike heels, even though Andrew calls them "sad and ridiculous" and Lydia eyes them with contempt (before trying them on and parading around in them). After all, spike heels may wreck a girl's skeleton from her arches to her spine, but what great legs she has when she wears them.

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