Double the Men, Half the Fun In 'The Owl and the Pussycat'

(Ray Gniewek - Actors' Theatre Of Washington)

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By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Swap the heterosexual couple of the 1960s romantic comedy "The Owl and the Pussycat" for two men, and what do you get? Not much -- and certainly not much fun -- in the deadly serious revival by Actors' Theatre of Washington now at Source Theatre.

Director Lee Mikeska Gardner's production is doggedly sober, despite Jeffrey Johnson's leggy appearance in what most people will think of as the Barbra Streisand role. (His tiny nightie is more revealing than Babs's, which famously had those twin pink handprints on the chest.) From the thoughtful program notes to the low-key acting, the show radiates introspection even in the face of a screwball plot.

Felix (the bookish Owl of the title, a would-be writer) is imposed upon by Doris (the pussycat), a tough-talking minx who's just been chucked from her apartment for illicit activities. Since Felix ratted her out, Doris figures he ought to take her in.

Inevitably, the opposites attract. In the 1970 movie, Streisand badgered George Segal with her blabbermouth style until he grew accustomed to her chattering.

Maybe Bill Manhoff's play was more sensitive once upon a time -- must've been, since Alan Alda starred in the 1965 Broadway version. Even that production opted for non-traditional casting, going biracial by having Diana Sands play Doris. Sands earned a Tony nomination for her performance, which suggests she gave the material some flair.

Johnson and Rick Hammerly don't, and the comedy sags under the weight of their cautious, introspective version of the usual insecure romantic games. Hammerly stays deep inside nebbishy boundaries as Felix, padding through Greg Stevens's claustrophobic set in a plaid bathrobe that stands as an emblem for his plaintive soul.

Johnson's Doris looks sassy, striding confidently in a short fur coat and perky blond wig. (Erin K. Sutton's costumes later feature white go-go boots and a pink miniskirt for Doris.) But Johnson's performance is whispery, his mouth agape as Doris wrestles internally with Felix's advanced vocabulary and temper.

A recurring theme in the play is identity, or confusion about it: Both characters repeatedly express uncertainty about who they are. Gardner and company find that a tender dilemma, and in some plays it is. At times, Johnson's fragility and misty-eyed paralysis almost persuade you that Manhoff's chestnut could work that way, too -- and to be fair, there's a lucid moment near the end that makes clear the path this production's been on.

But it's a long time coming. "Owl," a contemporary of mid-1960s neurotic romances "Any Wednesday" and "Barefoot in the Park," supports the notion only nominally, even when it's rendered in boldface by issue-specific casting.

Maybe not boldface, exactly, for Gardner's production sustains an easygoing tone that might be winning if it weren't so bland. "The Owl and the Pussycat" is not an easygoing comedy; it's a catfight with a happy ending. Gardner and her cast outfox themselves: They play against these broad types too much, and it doesn't take the show's full 2 1/2 hours for the comedy -- and interest -- to disappear.

The Owl and the Pussycat, by Bill Manhoff. Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner. Lighting design, Robert Brown; sound design, Jonathan Powers. With the voices of Ray Hagen, Lee Mikeska Gardner and Jonathan Powers. Approximately 2 1/2 hours. Through March 25 at 1835 14th Street NW. Call 800-494-8497 or visit http://www.atwdc.org.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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