Neil Simon mines a poignant vein Theater: 'Proposals' has nostalgic allure, despite its excesses.

October 04, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

It's not as raucous as "The Odd Couple"; not as dark as "Lost in Yonkers." "Proposals," now playing a pre-Broadway run at Washington's Kennedy Center, is Neil Simon in a poignant vein.

The poignancy is apparent from the opening strains of Stephen Flaherty's incidental music to the first sight of John Lee Beatty's wooded set, lighted by Brian MacDevitt to suggest dusky twilight in the Poconos.

Most of all, this poignancy is revealed in the entrance of actress L. Scott Caldwell as the play's wise narrator, Clemma Diggins, who lets us know -- not unlike Tennessee Williams' alter ego in "The Glass Menagerie" -- that "Proposals" is a memory play. And, as is often the case with memories, it's a bit long-winded, evoking both a yearning for days gone by and a sense of having stayed too long.

As directed by Joe Mantello, the play's two episodic acts, set in the 1950s, have a gentle, laughter-through-tears quality, even when hearts are breaking. Hearts are at the core of this 30th Neil Simon play, which explores love in its many forms. There's filial love, as a grown daughter, Josie, clings to the ailing father she adores; romantic love, as she weighs the attentions of a trio of suitors; and fractured marital love, as her divorced parents confront old feelings.

Fractured love also describes the play's most compelling relationship -- that of the family's housekeeper, Clemma, and her estranged husband, who unexpectedly shows up after a seven-year absence. The scene in which these two world-weary characters lay their feelings on the table is the most candid and taut of the evening.

If that scene stands out, it does so not merely because of the moving, intense performances by Caldwell and Mel Winkler, but also because too many moments in "Proposals" aren't yet taut enough. For instance, one of Josie's suitors is a malaprop-spouting Italian-American from north Miami named Vinnie Bavasi. ("It was like ancient Rome -- a fight between two gladiolas," is a typical example.)

Peter Rini's portrayal, though essentially an extension of his stereotyped appearance, is humorous. But, for a minor character who exists primarily for comic relief, Vinnie demands too much time and attention, and his eventual connection with Katie Finneran's character, a beautiful but dim New York model, is too obvious, too early.

Even crucial scenes are occasionally overwritten. Clemma's 11th-hour speech to Josie about anger is stretched out into a sermon. And Josie's discussion of her fear of her father's death not only sounds too overt, but is also too frank to be expressed to her mother, with whom she has had a conflicted relationship.

Part of the problem may be that Suzanne Cryer's Josie, while a central character, is not a particularly sympathetic one for most of the play. The playwright's tendency to lecture her must be difficult to resist. In contrast, as Josie's jilted fiance, Reg Rogers is highly endearing, although he overdoes his hangdog demeanor. Dick Latessa, as her heart-patient father, is also a warm presence, though he looks too old for a 55-year-old (even an ill one), and there's a forced shtick quality to his initial delivery.

Kelly Bishop brings a brittleness to her portrayal of Josie's mother that suggests where her daughter acquired her hard edges. Matt Letscher is surprisingly bland as Josie's third, and presumably most attractive, suitor.

Washington is the fourth and final city "Proposals" is playing before Broadway. It's already undergone revisions, but there are still excesses in writing and performances. Even so, the play's nostalgic allure is undeniable. You leave not only musing over your relationships with parents, lovers and friends, but also pining for those now-lost, lazy days of summer.

'Proposals'

Where: Kennedy Center, off Virginia and New Hampshire avenues Northwest, Washington

When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; matinees at 2: 30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; through Oct. 26

Tickets: $40-$50

Call: 800-444-1324

Pub Date: 10/04/97

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