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CurtainUp DC Report: October 1997
"Swan Song?"

by Les Gutman

October DC Report Topics
    Proposals, by Neil Simon (reviewed)
    All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, by Robert Fulghum
    A Follow-Up Item on tigertigertiger
Web pages mentioned in this report
Links to topics covered in prior DC Reports and to DC Theater Guides

One of the whispers surrounding the show on which I focus this month is the question of whether it will be the swan song of America's most successful living playwright, Neil Simon. Proposals will be, amazingly, Simon's thirtieth Broadway show in thirty-six years. Now in his seventies, he says he will seek less strenuous projects from now on. Did he save his best for last? Is this his last? We shall see.

Review: Proposals
The country house comedy endures and flourishes. Neil Simon's contribution to the genre is set in the Poconos of the 1950's and as enjoyable as anything he has ever written.

We've all been here before, and that's by design. Neil Simon manufactures his comedy not so much by one-liners (although there are plenty of those and most, hackneyed as they can sometimes be, work), but rather by feeding us the familiar. We meet people we'd swear we know; their problems, big and small, seem like our own. Somehow, this makes us laugh, often and a lot. Even when the subject is much darker than usual.

The setting is a new one for Simon, but straight out of the country house mold albeit with a couple of odd twists. The first variation is that the principal family is Jewish (although not very), and the pivotal "servant" is an African American housekeeper named Clemma (L. Scott Caldwell). The second is that Clemma is the narrator and, we discover immediately, a ghost. In Proposals, Clemma travels to her living past, a structure not as successful as it is perhaps clever. Notwithstanding, it casts an interestingly reflective, if sometimes somber, shadow on the proceedings.

As the play opens, Burt Hines (Dick Latessa), divorced and with a heart condition, is summering at the family cottage with Clemma and his daughter Josie (Suzanne Cryer). Our ghostly guide tells us this is to be Burt's last summer. Josie has been engaged to a law student named Ken (Reg Rogers), but announces she has broken it off. In keeping with the genre, the lush green solitude of the late summer mountains is soon interrupted by a smorgasbord of candidates for Josie's romantic attention. This parade is punctuated by a contemporaneous visit from Josie's now-remarried mother (for whom her father retains feelings even if she does not). Add to the mix of this day the coincidental return of Clemma's husband, Lewis (Mel Winkler), who walked out of her life seven years ago.

Neil Simon's writing is the driving force of this production. The wit that has carried his work from the Fifties through the present permeates the play. It is most striking when it is the most seemingly effortless: the end of the first act is a shining example of this elegant simplicity.

There is a maturity of subject and style in Proposals that reveals a progression in Simon's development, a shift that has been noticeable since Brighton Beach Memoirs. (Simon was quoted in Paris Review as saying, "Life without the dark times is unrealistic. I don't want to write unrealistically anymore.") Cares and concerns are no longer marginalized; Simon deals richly with relationships (familial and romantic), life and death, and feelings. Still, Simon's craftsmanship in dealing with these more serious elements never rises to the level of his comedic work, and seams are particularly visible in the unnecessarily long second act.

The entire ensemble of characters is well developed, even those who are sacrificed for laughs. Some are developed at a price, however: Simon's stereotypes may offend some; there is little in the way of political correctness here. The two standout performances are also the two most likely to offend.

L. Scott Caldwell delivers a Tony nomination-worthy performance as Clemma, revealing the conflicting status of her authority and control, and of her position. (She can't remember if she was "colored" or a Negro then, but she certainly knows everyone in the family relied on her wisdom as much as they relied on her to do the dishes.) Her scenes with her husband Lewis are wonderful, probably the best (acted and written) in the show. She is equally strong in those with Burt and Josie, even if the dramatic writing doesn't always keep pace.

The other standout is Peter Rini as Vinnie Bavasi, a South Florida Mafia type, wholly out of place in the Poconos ("he talks to you like he's holding up a gas station"). He once danced with Josie in Miami and has now come, quite uninvited, to woo her. A cross between every role ever played by Joe Pesci and Mrs. Malaprop (he says he often picks the wrong word "knowledgingly"), his linguistically-challenged argument with recently-dumped Ken at a picnic lunch is destined for the archives of comedy. If Rini's performance is judged offensive and over-the-top, it certainly wasn't written to be anything less.

Reg Rogers' Ken is also an exceptionally well-rendered performance in a difficult but well-written role. Simon's insight into the emotions of Ken and his friend Ray (Matt Letscher), who ends up with his girl, is exceptional, and Rogers does not miss any of its complexity.

Dick Latessa is quite good as Burt, as one would expect of a Broadway veteran. (Proposals will be the sixth Neil Simon play in which he has appeared on Broadway.) He brings no particular surprises, however. The same assessment can be applied to the remainder of the cast: not a weak performance among them, but little that could be termed inspired either.

Parallels to Simon's own life are found in virtually all of his work, and Proposals is no exception. The relationship of Ray and Josie is drawn from that of Simon and his first wife, Joan Baim. It's interesting that, in his seventies and far more willing to reveal his own feelings than in his earlier work, Simon nonetheless chooses a twenty-something character, rather than a peer like Burt Hines, to express himself.

Joe Mantello's direction is generally sensitive, balancing the depths of Simon's characters with the laughs we expect along the way, and not letting either overpower the other. (The main exception to this is his handling of Vinnie, but any other treatment would have ignored Mr. Simon's obvious intentions.) John Lee Beatty's outdoor set is beautiful and well-designed, employing a small turntable to shift from the Hines' front yard to back yard and into the forest. Jane Greenwood's costumes are perfect to the point of not being noticed. (Her years of experience in costume design have taught her when not to draw attention to her work.) Brian MacDevitt's lighting gives the stage a beautifully dreamy, almost photographic glow.

Washington is the last pre-Broadway tryout for Proposals. It can be expected that a little more script doctoring will be attempted in the remaining few weeks --a Simon's memoir (see link below for CurtainUp's review) wasn't titled Rewrites without reason. Most likely these fixes will come in the second act. However, even without such refinement, and even with its faults, if this is to be Simon's last offering for Broadway, it is already a swan song with an exceptionally appealing voice. Matured as it is, it remains true to his roots most of all.
by Neil Simon 
starring L. Scott Caldwell, Suzanne Cryer and Dick Latessa 
Directed by Joe Mantello 
Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theatre (202) 467-4600 
Web page address is show below 
October 1- 26, 1997

Everything I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten
I confess I wasn't interested in Robert Fulghum's cleverly titled collection of pop sermonettes when it was a best-seller. It struck me as a book one bought for the title and little else. For others, perhaps, it was a great inspiration.

When Ford's Theatre announced a stage version of the book starring Bonnie Franklin (the mom from TV's One Day at a Time), Liz Sheridan (Jerry's mom on TV's Seinfeld) and James Whitmore, I again felt I was being asked to buy something based solely on its cover. And again, I resisted. This show no doubt has aspirations of moving upward, so for those more favorably disposed toward it, it will be onstage at Ford's, 511 10th Street NW, until November 2. Telephone (202) 347-4833.
Follow-Up Item on tigertigertiger
Michael Roth, the composer from tigertigertiger (reviewed in the September DC Report linked below), was the subject of a recent lengthy article/interview in the Los Angeles Times. In addition to his work on this play, he has been busy on the West Coast working on a musical adaptation of Aristophanes' The Birds for South Coast Repertory. He also serves as resident composer at La Jolla Playhouse, and has just released his first CD, Their Thought and back Again, described as a contemporary opera. It is said to be available at Borders, or more information may be had by email to
Links to Web Pages Mentioned in this Report
Kennedy Center website:
CurtainUp's review of Rewrites.

©October 1997, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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