Monday, October 15, 2007

In Search of Neil Simon

"A feminine ending" at Playwrights Horizons, October 12, 2007

Sarah Treem's new play has made its off-Broadway debut in the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre at Playwrights Horizons. The story is somehow familiar, despite her efforts to thrust a musical concept of gender assignments over it.

Amanda (Gillian Jacobs), a composer has managed to land Jack (Alec Beard), a narcissistic rock singer on the verge of significant fame and fortune. He's really hot (he really is!) and she confuses her thrill that he's even noticed her with love. He's not really that bright, though, so there's a strong "need" factor to seal the attraction and they plan to marry. Amanda's mother Kim (Marsha Mason) won't show any signs of approval or support for the wedding, constantly calling to distract Amanda with her own manic minutiae. She capitalizes on Amanda's insecurity when Jack heads out for a power dinner with his agent and a record producer, dragging her home to help Kim pack up to leave Amanda's father, David (Richard Masur). Of course her first (only?) boyfriend from high school, Billy (Joe Paulik) now lives next door and pops up to throw the plot contrivance into the works. Too bad the plot turn doesn't make more sense.

As Amanda, Gillian Jacobs is pretty in that average sort of way. The show was still in previews the night I saw it, so some of the slight discomfort I felt in many of her line deliveries will hopefully iron themselves out over the next few performances. I was more distracted by her permanent-slightly-bent-at-the-waist posture, which made little sense for a character whose musical background began with the oboe, and proceeded to the piano (good posture is required for both instruments). Plus as a composer, one might presume a bit of conducting along the way would have softened the repeated karate-shop gestures with which she punctuated her lines. Her Amanda was a bit whiny, too, never able to command the attention she desperately sought, and only of late began to ask for.

Marsha Mason, Kim could be any of the Neil Simon women he wrote for her. Her last prominent acting role was that of Martin Crane's girlfriend Sherry in "Frasier." I was disappointed not to see something more specific than this middle-aged Goodbye Girl/Chapter Two/Gingerbread Lady (Only When I Laugh). Her Kim is nothing new to the world of middle aged female characters who finally have "had enough" and want to start new. The revelation that she gave up an art career to raise Amanda comes too little too late to make her more interesting.

Richard Masur's David also struggle to find a third dimension. He's all smiles, nods and uh huhs of agreement without listening to a word. He knows that Kim has been unhappy, but has counted on her inability to act for most of their marriage. Mr. Masur has a nice moment when he explains to Amanda that life isn't fair, but luckily it doesn't really matter in the end.

Joe Paulik seems to be having the most fun in his quirky portrayal of Billy. Now a mail carrier, he gets to reveal some mental instability in his family that seems to have been passed right along. It's not quite Tourette's, but he does have a grand time with outbursts and shouts.

Ms. Treem's writing holds some bizarre twists in language, with the odd expletive and non-sequitur showing up from time to time.

Under the direction of Blair Brown, it feels like this play might have benefited from just one more workshop before this full-scale production. She has elicited some nice moments here and there, but there are still many gaps remaining. Operationally, the choreography of set changes and transitions work nicely, but it's the moments in between that need another look.

Speaking of, it is Cameron Anderson's thoughtful and detailed sets that bring this play to life. From the overscaled piano string backdrop, to the paneled den of Amanda's parents which reminded me of the back of an upright piano, to the Rorschach print orchard flats, the warmth was ever present. Ben Stanton's lighting complimented nicely.

See the post below for ticket discounts.

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