Sex and the Older Woman

Take an Italian widow, angry at her daughter, and a Jewish widow, clinging to her daughter. Add an unassuming rabbi and a recent widower vigorously into the sauce. Throw them together in a South Florida condominium and shake them all up. What do you get? A silly bedroom farce that, despite some hilariously lewd moments, is ultimately forgettable. In other words, another evening of light entertainment from the Coconut Grove Playhouse.

In Bermuda Avenue Triangle, currently enjoying its world premiere at the Playhouse, Tess (Beatrice Arthur) and Fannie (Renee Taylor) arrive at a condo bought for them by their daughters, who have relegated their mothers to development hell in order to get on with their own lives. The women join a hike led by Rabbi Levine (Cliff Norton), activities director at the residence, tramping through the mangroves of Key Biscayne. A drunken vagrant saves the women from being mugged when they stray too far from the group. Even through his alcoholic stupor, sweet-talking Johnny (Joseph Bologna) knows a good thing when he sees it, insinuates himself into their lives, and lures both Tess and Fannie into bed. When the two discover they are being two-timed, well, you probably can write the rest of the play yourself.

Yet the script displays flashes of insight. Fannie and Tess relay their life stories to Johnny in a terrific spoof on victimhood: Fannie's mother plowed fields in Russia by hand when the ox took sick; Tess insists, as she launches into a monologue about her abusive marriage, that "Fannie's life was not worse than mine." And all too aware that they've been put out to pasture by their daughters, the women vow to lead full and exciting lives.

Playwrights-actors Taylor and Bologna, the talented husband-and-wife team who gave us the classic scene of wedding excess in the 1970 movie Lovers and Other Strangers, serve up one-liners and physical comedy that's occasionally as funny as anything they've ever written or performed. But the laughs, often based on props (handfuls of cellophane-wrapped hard candies, diet oat bran macaroons, an enema bag) and sight gags (Arthur and Taylor transformed, after bouts of lovemaking with Johnny, from gray-haired frumps into a redhead and a platinum blonde, respectively), aren't enough to hold together a cute but slight script that plummets into sentimentality in the final scene. Tess moralizes "We all wasted our lives being unhappy," and I lament having watched a largely unfinished script.

An exuberant delight in sex enlivens the evening, however. Johnny may be a freeloading cad, adept at the art of syrupy seduction, but he awakens the deadened senses of Fannie and Tess with his prowess. And, not surprisingly -- considering the seasoned cast and the skills of director Kenneth Frankel, former associate artistic director of the Long Wharf Theater, in Connecticut -- there are uproarious bits, supplied chiefly by Taylor's comedic talents. She revitalizes two exhausted cliches: the Jewish food joke and the Jewish mother caricature. Her Fannie clamps down her teeth on a pastrami and cheese sandwich so possessively that not even the Jaws of Life can unhinge her from the object of her desire. And her transmutation from sacrificial mother to Lana Turneresque bombshell is hysterical, particularly as she resists dancing with the relentless Johnny. I was laughing so hard I cried.

Cliff Norton, a long-time veteran of TV comedy and the stage, is a perfect straight man, aghast at the condo shenanigans. Bologna is an agile Don Juan. Less believable is Arthur. Known to the world as Maude (from the 1970s TV series of the same name) and Dorothy (from the more recent Golden Girls), she moved with a fluid authority in both of those roles; yet here her Tess is stiff and strident, even after Johnny has his way with her.

Finally, Taylor and Bologna are not only funny writers and performers, they also share some of the most magnetic chemistry I've ever seen between two people on stage or screen. This serves only to make the incomplete quality of Bermuda Avenue Triangle all the more disappointing.

Stage Notes
Since its inception in 1979, Teatro Avante has presented a range of international works by playwrights such as Albee, Cocteau, Cabrujas, Garcia Lorca, Triana, and Williams. Its current production, Venezuelan playwright Rodolfo Santana's Spanish-language Mirando al tendido (Looking Into the Stands), puts a matador and a bull together in the ritualistic arena of the ring, where they engage in a power struggle over nothing less than life and death. No other play I can think of currently on-stage in South Florida combines the philosophical and the political in this way. Still, if you don't speak Spanish....

"One of Avante's most important goals," explains Avante producing artistic director Mario Ernesto Sanchez, "is to make our rich Hispanic culture available to the non-Spanish speaker in South Florida." Even though Avante has presented certain plays in English since 1984, the majority of its productions are inaccessible to the English-speaking public. Not for long. According to Sanchez, the purchase of a simultaneous translation machine is on the horizon. The device will allow non-Spanish-speaking audience members to don headphones during an Avante production and hear an English-language version of the play. The simultaneous translation will be provided by actors located in the lighting booth, who'll speak into the machine. Sanchez hopes to have it set up by June for this year's Hispanic Theatre Festival. Simultaneous translation is certain to be a challenge for a director, who now will have to work with two sets of actors in two different languages. But Sanchez points out that it will be much more practical than mounting two productions, and it opens up a realm of theatergoing possibilities for audiences anxious to enjoy the challenging work of this company.

I have to admit I was skeptical when I received the press release for the newly formed Maayan Tikva Theater Company, which bills itself as an "alternative" Jewish theater. Hmmm. I already have seen innumerable productions on Jewish themes or with Jewish characters this season, and while many have been excellent, the market is nonetheless saturated with Jewish theater. Maayan Tikva, however, may be something completely different. Founder Leib Shlomo Malk is an Orthodox Jew who's been involved in theater in Moscow, London, and Los Angeles. He came to South Florida hoping to find a sympathetic home. "It's impossible to break into the industry as an Orthodox Jew," he notes, "since we never have a show on Friday nights or Saturdays."

Malk says he tends to cast against age and type, and seeks "to do things that provoke my audience." Accordingly, his multicultural troupe includes Catholics, a Jamaican, and a Palestinian. Maayan Tikva's first offering was the two-act comedy Itsel and Sophia, presented every Sunday throughout February in Coral Springs. Malk says the nomadic company is looking for a space on Lincoln Road for its next production.

Theater is moving and shaking down in Key West, that infamous outpost that may be too far away for an evening jaunt (depending, of course, on how fast your sports car goes and how stoked you are on cafe con leche) but just the right distance for a wild weekend, including what sound like interesting happenings on the stage. Through this weekend, at the Red Barn Theatre, actor Tony Roberts is directing Skidding, a reprise of the 1927 Broadway comedy that inspired a spate of Andy Hardy movies for MGM. Roberts, best known for his roles in the Woody Allen films Annie Hall and Play It Again, Sam, boasts a hefty stage and screen resume. Red Barn artistic director Joy Hawkins says engaging Roberts to direct is part of the theater's intention "to bring in nationally known directors to work with local artists." Call 296-9911 for details.

While you're down there, check out Club Chameleon's Flamingo Follies, a new and ongoing musical satire of Key West tourist attractions A inanimate and otherwise. The revue has been compared to the long-running San Francisco-based satire Beach Blanket Babylon, although Follies director and co-creator David Spangler assures me "audiences say it's better." Well, he would. Apparently, Good Morning America loved the show, featuring the cast doing a number on the air two weeks ago when correspondent Spencer Christian visited Key West. Call 296-3030.

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