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The Heart of a "Dogfight" Lindsay Mendez and Derek Klena find love in a spiky new musical

By LINDA BUCHWALD

At a crucial point in the new musical Dogfight, now at Second Stage Theatre, shy waitress Rose Fenny and Marine Eddie Birdlace share a nervous kiss on her bed. But it's not a perfect movie kiss. It's awkward, hesitant, and a little bit tender.

At first, Derek Klena (Eddie) and Lindsay Mendez (Rose) considered practicing the kiss before they were in rehearsals with director Joe Mantello. "Then we realized that doing that scene on the fly, with no previous practice, was probably the best way to go," says Klena. "Both characters are put in this new situation, and they have to put on this secure front even though they're highly insecure inside."

However, despite not practicing their lip locks, the co-stars did work outside of rehearsals to develop a closer bond, going to dinner and taking long walks. "I felt like us having that type of relationship during the rehearsal process has made us great friends and very compatible on stage together," Klena says, and that connection is certainly crucial for the story. He adds, though, that since most of the show takes place in one night, they also have to maintain the nervous energy of two people who have just met.

Dogfight, with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, is based on a 1991 film of the same name. The title refers to a dance in which Marines compete for a cash prize by trying to bring the ugliest girl as a date. Eddie is desperate to find a candidate when he goes into a café, sees Rose playing the guitar, and decides to ask her. Her excitement as she gets dressed up to go on her first date, oblivious to what's really happening, is heartbreaking to watch.

It's equally unsettling for Mendez, who was last seen in the Broadway revival of <em>Godspell</em>. "The first act is hard to go through every night," she says. "To feel the way she feels when she discovers what she's doing at that party, that's a hard scene."

To help them master those complicated moments, Mantello put his actors through a rigorous rehearsal process. Mendez recalls, "Sometimes we'd spend an hour on [a scene] and sometimes we'd spend five minutes on [a scene], and then [Mantello] would say, 'Let's not touch that again today,' and we'd go back a couple of days later and it would have grown and developed."

The actors have learned just as much about their characters from audience reactions to early performances. For instance, when Eddie apologizes to Rose, he says, "I don't care what you look like," and it gets a laugh every time. Mendez wasn't expecting that: "They're not laughing at it for a bad reason. They're laughing because they can't believe he said that---and I think they feel awkward and terrible---but that line always hurts my feelings as Rose. And when the audience laughs at it, it really hurts. Which is great for the character and great for the scene."

But even though there's a lot of cruelty in the show, Mendez and Klena ultimately see it as a love story with a positive message. Mendez says, "It's such a beautiful piece about learning self-respect and loving yourself and being proud of who you are."

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Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre as @PataphysicalPsi. She contributes to StageGrade and the theatre blog Pataphysical Science.