Once Upon a Time in the Poconos: Proposals at The Actor’s Studio

play_slas.jpgWhen a play by a writer as well known, even iconic, as Neil Simon is seldom performed, there’s a reason.







Proposals is one of Neil Simon’s lesser-known plays. First produced in 1997, it ran for just 70 performances on Broadway. But there is more to like here than not, beginning with the could-have-been-a-stereotype-but-isn’t-due to-the-force-of-her-personality and acting talent: Choyce Johnson as Clemma Diggins. She is the backbone of the Hines family with whom she’s spent 20 years as a domestic.

The play opens as Clemma emerges from a cabin in the Poconos in the present to narrate the story of the Hines’ last summer at their mountain retreat. She takes us back to 1953, where Burt (Whit Reichert), a 55-year-old recovering workaholic, is recovering from his second heart attack. His twentysomething daughter, Josie (Megan Rodd), enters having just broken her engagement to Ken (Rusty Gunther) a snobby and intense Harvard law student. They are expecting a visit from Burt’s ex-wife, Josie’s mother Annie (Alice Kinsella), who is remarried and living in Paris. Burt still loves Annie; Josie resents her and ironically favors her father, since the reason for the split was his singular focus on work, leaving Annie to be a kind of single mother.

But Annie and Josie had Clemma, to whom Josie has always felt close. Clemma has no children, yet she does have a husband, Lewis (Eddie Webb), and he is also expected to visit on this very crowded day. He left her seven years before, and she is nervous about seeing him now. Ken’s friend Ray (Tyler Vickers), an aspiring novelist working as a golf pro, had been involved with Josie the previous summer. He comes around to do a John Alden with Josie on Ken’s behalf. It’s clear from the beginning where Josie’s heart lies. Later in the day, Ray brings the stereotypical dumb blonde he’s dating, Sammii (Megan Vickers)—that’s not a typo; her name ends in a double "I"—and the final guest is unexpected but oh-so-welcome to the audience. He is Vinnie Bavasi (Aaron Oion Baker), a gangster and junior college student from Florida with whom Josie had struck up an acquaintance while on vacation.

Vinnie has come with a gift for Josie, but it’s his gift for malapropisms that is the reward for the audience. Yet, he seems out of place. It’s almost as if Simon made him up and liked him so much that he plunked him in the middle of this play just because he knew he was funny. Baker plays him absolutely straight, which makes the whole bit even more hilarious, even if we do keep wondering why this character is involved at all.

Reichert doesn’t seem entirely comfortable playing Burt. He’s fine in the tender scenes with his daughter and ex-wife, though he does declaim a bit here and there, a problem shared by most of the cast. But he isn’t believable as someone who was so hard-driving all his life that he ruined his health and still has to fight the urge to keep working. Kinsella acquits herself nicely as the sensible Annie, and it’s clear she still loves Burt, too; she just couldn’t keep living with him.

Gunther, who absolutely nailed the doofus he played in The Dead Guy, seems considerably less in his element here. What he does mostly is shout. A lot. It’s probably not his fault, since likely he was directed to play the character that way, but it just didn’t work for me. Tyler Vickers, on the other hand, seems to be just where he belongs. He may be a little too self-confident to play a character struggling through publishers’ rejections, but he has an easy charm and grace that make us understand Josie’s attraction to him. It’s also fun to watch the careful blocking to keep the tiny Rodd and the tall Vickers either sitting, standing on two different levels, or not placed too close together. Megan Vickers doesn’t have much to do, but she makes Sammii amusing in a scene involving a dead bird.

And musing on dead birds is where Clemma starts her narration. She begins talking about how many dead birds there are and wondering why the ground isn’t just littered with their little bodies. The comic bird burial scene reminds me of that early, moving speech. Anytime Johnson is onstage, the quality of the proceedings kicks up a notch. And her scene with Webb is, I believe, the best single part of the whole play. Which leads me to consider the term "parts." Proposals often feels too much like a comedy sketch show with interludes of pathos, rather than a coherent comedy-drama with each element enhancing the other.

The set and lights by Patrick Huber make good use of a small space and create a sense of depth in the woods. Teresa Doggett’s costumes are fun to look at and character-/period-appropriate, though Vinnie does look like he’s wearing Tony Manero’s disco suit rather than tropical whites. Overall, the production values are fine. Zoth has made some directorial choices that I don’t understand with regard to the actors’ portrayals, but otherwise, it’s a polished job.

The audience clearly had a great time at Proposals, and I enjoyed it for the most part. However, when a play by a writer as well known, even iconic, as Neil Simon is seldom performed, there’s a reason. This show doesn’t demonstrate Simon’s usually deft hand; at best, it is simple Simon and, in the end, the material has not served the actors well. | Andrea Braun

Proposals runs at the Gaslight Theatre, 358 N. Boyle through Oct. 18. Information and tickets are available by calling 314-458-2978 or visiting the St. Louis Actors Studio online.

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