“You don’t,” says a young writer in Neil Simon's new play, "push characters around anywhere you please."
When he grows up to be the most successful playwright Broadway has ever seen, he will probably think differently. Certainly his creator does.
He moves his characters the family, servants and guests of a retired Jewish television retailer in pretty patterns of his own invention. He contrives for no good reason to bring them together for a weekend in Pennsylvania.
He laces their lives with intricate complications. He gives them funny lines. He ties up all the loose ends he has so skillfully dangled before us. It is as impressive, and as empty, as watching a great compiler of crosswords solve one of his own puzzles.
There are some variations here on Simon's familiar forms. Most of the characters are young. The action takes place outdoors. There is a black woman at the center of the play.
But these turn out to be timid steps. The remembered youth is that of nice, preppie kids in the early 1950s, before Elvis and LSD. Sweet Josie breaks off her engagement with Ken, who is second in his class at Harvard Law School. She is in love with Ray, a golf pro who wants to be a writer. A potentially dangerous character, Vinnie, who turns up apparently in pursuit of Josie, sounds like he might be a junior Mafioso. But his main ambition in life is to make jewelry for the Pope. This image of youth makes "The Brady Bunch" look like "West Side Story."
As for the outdoor settings, beautifully realized by designer John Lee Batty, they are really the great indoors in drag: the grounds of a neat, clapboard country house.
And, most seriously of all, the black woman, Clemma, even in L. Scott Caldwell's richly sympathetic performance, is just a slightly deeper version of the nanny in "Gone With the Wind." The pre-civil-rights-movement setting, the idyllic picture of relations between blacks and Jews, the deeply dishonest notion that a servant is the real power in the household, all point more to desperate avoidance than to any new-found realism.
And the poignant thing is that Simon evidently sees all of this himself. He knows the plot is hopelessly contrived, so he has the characters say things like, "It seems like everyone here is trying to get their lives sorted out all on this weekend." He knows that Clemma is a nostalgic stereotype, so he has her mention civil rights at the end.
But what he doesn't know is what to do about it. He falls back on what seldom fails, the endless stream of wisecracks. With a perfectly poised cast like this one, the timing of the delivery keeps the laughs coming. More than ever before, though, Simon's jokes arise out of words, not out of character or action. Often, they are genuinely witty. Sometimes, as with Vinnie's increasingly unlikely mispronunciations, they are thin and tedious. But always, their effect is to keep us away from the characters.
The pity is that somewhere inside all of this there is a real subject trying to get out: the struggle of a middle-aged man who has had a heart attack and is facing death. It is written on the face of Dick Latessa, the superb actor who plays the father. It is even written, from time to time, in Simon's dialogue. When he is not fleeing from it into a sterile display of skills, he shows that he can move us with the touch of human reality. With nothing left to prove, isn't it time that Neil Simon trusted his audience enough to let that touch linger?
As long as Neil Simon keeps turning out his glossy fantasies, loosely woven from mildly autobiographical inventions, such sadly endangered species as the Broadway comedy and the well-made play will never have to give up the ghost.
His latest excursion into the comforting, comfortable and extremely entertaining world of his private reminiscences with a public face is called "Proposals." It opened last night at the Broadhurst Theatre, scoring what should prove a home run for his past and a hit for his future.
It is a play of great warmth and charm, and I seem to recall reading that it was inspired by his wooing of his first wife - possibly. The personal elements in most of Simon's plays, while present, are usually so absorbed into the fabric of the story that, as they are here, they are lost in the writing.
Of course, Simon is often at his best describing a family; either his own, in the "Brighton Beach" trilogy, or, as here, clearly someone else's. But "Proposals" is not just about a family; it is concerned with the last sweet days of a family.
The beginning is slightly rough going - except for John Lee Beatty's woodland setting of a cottage in the Poconos that makes you want to go on vacation rather than watch a play.
Then Clemma (L. Scott Caldwell) enters, establishing herself as dead three years, and as a character of the kind that most plays would thought had gone with the wind and Hattie McDaniel. She then has to launch - as if it were cute, witty and original - into a rural version of that hoary old New York City story of how you never see dead pigeons!
Not a promising start.
But the play rolls on and gathers substance. First we get to meet the nearest the play gets to a hero, the father of the piece, Burt Hines (Dick Latessa).
A 55-year-old recovering workaholic who has lost his wife through inattention, Burt is convalescing from a second heart attack. He spends much of his time eavesdropping on his daughter, Josie (Suzanne Cryer), by which means he soon learns that she has just broken her engagement to Harvard law student Ken (Reg Rogers).
So, now the play is up and running, and it doesn't have to run very far. It is not just the woodland setting that is Chekhovian; change, loss and departure are all but palpable in the late summer air.
This is going to be the last vacation in the old home. We feel it. They feel it. The divorced wife, Annie (Kelly Bishop), flies in from Paris. Why?
Perhaps to say goodbye to her ex-husband, or to their old summer home, or to establish a working relationship with her estranged daughter - or, maybe, a little of all of the above.
Other visitors turn up - all unexpected, except by the playwright and, in general terms, the audience. There is the ex-fiance's best friend, Ray (Matt Letscher), who once had a fling with Josie, who still carries a smoldering torch for him.
Then there is Ray's current girlfriend, Sammii (Katie Finneran), a model of impeccable stupidity, and a strange mini-gangster from Miami, Vinnie (Peter Rini), with sharp clothes, bangles and a somewhat wearing gift for malapropisms. And finally there arrives Lewis (Mel Winkler), Clemma's own ex, with one working eye, one working hand and a bad conscience.
Simon plays his characters as if he were playing poker, and winning. And we sit back and enjoy.
"Proposals" is not profound. It's not ambitious. It is sometimes too smart for its own credibility – in real life, no one describes someone as "having a black belt in handshaking" - but it's quite funny, and it has its own acid-aphoristic, sugar-coated truth. No one talked like Oscar Wilde in real life.
Under Joe Mantello's beautifully paced direction, the actors flowered with the incidents. I liked best Latessa (his finest role to date), Bishop (ditto) and the wonderful Caldwell and Winkler.
The younger people were adequate – Mantello could have reined some of them in with advantage - and Jane Greenwood's costumes and Brian MacDevitt's lighting, both adjuncts to Beatty's triumphant set, proved splendid.
It's a perfect, untroublesome way to spend an evening - or even a matinee - especially with old friends. Simon's in his heavens, and Broadway is itself again.
On most nights just after 8, a lone woman wanders onto the stage of the Broadhurst Theater with a marveling, slightly stunned expression. As she looks intently at the very sylvan setting around her, running her hands over a piece of rustic furniture, she seems to be asking a silent, probing question, one no doubt shared by much of the audience watching her: ''Hey, am I in the right place? I thought there was supposed to be a Neil Simon play going on here.''
It will soon become abundantly, even achingly, evident that no one has strayed into the wrong theater. But the first scene of ''Proposals,'' the new comedy by Mr. Simon, which opened last night, does create a few tantalizing moments of disorientation.
The set, the wonderful work of John Lee Beatty, is a very sweet slice of countryside, greener than Oz and complemented by choruses of bird song. This from Mr. Simon, America's comic master of the urban interior? But wait: the woman alone on the stage is the actress L. Scott Caldwell, who happens to be black.
Now unless you count the Bill Cosby-Richard Pryor episode of the movie version of ''California Suite'' (and kinder souls do not), Mr. Simon, who specializes in Jewish wisecrackers with fractured hearts, has never created a major black character before. What's more, Ms. Caldwell's role will clearly be the central one in ''Proposals.'' And by the way, her character, at least when first seen, is a ghost, a device the author has flirted with before (in ''Jake's Women''), but never as fully as here.
There is certainly something to be said for catching your audience off guard as a means of leading it into unfamiliar terrain. What Mr. Simon has done, though, is to introduce an expectation of novelty that will prove to be only a tease.
''Proposals,'' an animated map of romantic entanglements in the Poconos in 1953, sets up an array of signposts indicating new directions from the dazzlingly successful, intimidatingly prolific playwright who changed the very face of American comedy on Broadway. In addition to the more superficial detours from customary Simon fare, there are intimations of a cosmic tone to the evening, centered on a sense of individual mortality.
But all this is just lip service. ''Proposals,'' directed by Joe Mantello, is more artificial and laugh-hungry than Mr. Simon's self-described farce of 1988, ''Rumors.'' Much has been made of his return to a big house on Broadway, after presenting his last work, ''London Suite,'' at a theater off Union Square. But what he really seems to be going back to here are his origins as a sketch writer for the early days of television comedy, which Mr. Simon portrayed in his last Broadway production, ''Laughter on the 23d Floor.''
Though it may aspire to a sense of the natural flow of life and death, ''Proposals'' still tends to break down into mechanical, self-contained segments: of dueling one-liners, lip-biting emotional confrontations and long embroideries on single comic conceits.
When you learn, for example, that a character has only one good eye, you can be sure that this will generate at least a few minutes worth of jokes. And another character's penchant for malapropisms is milked for far longer. Sometimes these cumulative variations on a single jest take on a dizzy absurdity. But most often it's like watching a virus run its course.
''Proposals'' plies the backward-looking formula Mr. Simon used, with far greater appeal, in his breakthrough trilogy of autobiographical plays: ''Brighton Beach Memoirs,'' ''Biloxi Blues'' and ''Broadway Bound.'' Like them, it presents a self-portrait of the artist as a young man (here a struggling novelist played by Matt Letscher) and frames it with the commentary of a droll narrator.
The difference is that the narrator is not the young artist figure, but Ms. Caldwell's character, Clemma Diggins, a maid. Clemma keeps house for, and offers wise counsel to, the ailing Burt Hines (Dick Latessa) and his 20-ish daughter, Josie (Suzanne Cryer), during what will be their last summer at the family cabin in the Poconos.
The plot starts grinding when Josie breaks off her engagement to the moody preppie Ken (Reg Rogers), whose best friend, Ray (Mr. Letscher), is the real object of Josie's affections, although he is currently involved with a lovely but dim fashion model named Sammii (Katie Finneran).
Then there's a third suitor, Vinnie (Peter Rini), a hip-gyrating, chain-wearing Mafia scion from Florida who directly brings to mind the Fonz from ''Happy Days.'' And both Burt and Clemma are expecting visits from their estranged spouses: Annie (Kelly Bishop), Josie's mother who has since remarried, and Lewis (Mel Winkler), who walked out on Clemma seven years earlier.
That all of these people converge on one spot during one hectic weekend is something that ''Proposals'' pauses briefly to acknowledge with lines like, ''God, they're going to build another lane in the highway.'' That Clemma is remembering these proceedings from beyond the grave suggests that Mr. Simon has an ordering, providential destiny in mind.
But if the Lord works in mysterious ways, Mr. Simon does not. Nearly every moment, both comic and plaintive, seems to have been created by stopwatch and diagram. And when Ray complains to Josie, ''You don't push characters around anyway you please,'' it feels like a self-directed criticism.
As ''Proposals'' sorts out its confused lovers into appropriately matched pairs, it becomes clear that romance for Mr. Simon is at least partly linguistic. Those who speak badly end up together, as do those who can joust wittily about the use of adverbs.
This means that, as is usual with Mr. Simon, there is no deficit of clever retorts. (When Ms. Bishop's preening mother worries about what to do about her ''little crow's feet,'' her daughter suggests that she ''buy little slippers for them.'') But an unusual percentage of the one-liners sound recycled. (Ray on informing his mother of his broken engagement: ''I'll have my father tell her. She never listens to what he says, anyway.'')
In a play that relies wearily on a father's penchant for eavesdropping for continuing laughs, it's small wonder that Mr. Mantello's direction comes to feel like the work of a traffic cop. Or that the audience's responses, especially to the competitive exchanges of insults, evoke a television laugh track.
The performances from the appealing and polished cast are inevitably shtick-driven. Ms. Caldwell has the toughest time of it, especially considering that Clemma is a not-so-distant cousin of the wise but sassy black maids portrayed by Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers in movies and on television. (Clemma has to say, ''I don't care if you're black, white or blue, we all get real stupid sometimes.'') Yet this fine actress is able to locate an emotional grit in her character that gives the evening its anchor.
And Ms. Cryer, a newcomer to Broadway, is a most welcome presence in a part that was inspired by Mr. Simon's first wife, Joan, who died of cancer 30 years ago at 39 and is the heroine of ''Rewrites,'' the dramatist's memoir of last year. (Ms. Cryer even looks like photographs of Joan Simon in that book.) This actress turns Mr. Simon's affection for her character into a glowing performance that is not without its sharp edges. She is also remarkably successful in finding motives specific to Josie in clever lines that could be spoken by almost anyone, although the effort sometimes shows.
That effort didn't have to be visible. In ''Rewrites,'' Mr. Simon tells of an early encounter with the producer Max Gordon, who told him: ''There's no play without characters . . . If you got a story and dialogue but no characters, what have you got?''
Mr. Simon has been blessed with an unusual facility for zippy dialogue and innately involving, neatly shaped stories, but a rich sense of character has always come less easily to him. He has struggled admirably to correct this, and with works as different as ''Broadway Bound'' and the screenplay for ''The Heartbreak Kid,'' he has conquered it to wonderful effect.
With ''Proposals,'' unfortunately, there's little sense that the people on the stage are more than conduits for the jokes and the plot. Still, how could a playwright with more than two dozen Broadway productions in 30-some years not go on automatic pilot from time to time? It surely isn't accidental that Mr. Latessa's character, a retailer who accumulated stores like Babe Ruth toting up home runs, has worked himself sick. A corresponding sense of fatigue is the most real emotion in ''Proposals.''
The woodland setting isn't the only thing misty in Neil Simon's new "Proposals" -- the playwright's eyes all but spritz with dew. His sentimentality holding a death grip on characters and contrivances that were given up for gone long ago, Simon survives this foggy forest through craft alone, the rim-shot dialogue and predictable plotlines at least somewhat comforting in their familiarity.
Any notion that director Joe Mantello would inject some youthful edge -- or at least view things from this side of the Eisenhower Era -- all but evaporates in a procession of characters that emerge from a haze of gentle, fuzzy stereotypes. "Proposals" is unapologetic in its golden-hued approach to folksy black housekeepers, filled with sass and the Lord's righteousness, and pinkie-ringed Italian goombahs who fish with guns because it's more "humane-able," but only Simon fans will be as warmly disposed.
A memory play, "Proposals" is told in flashback by the ghost of the housekeeper, taking place over the course of a summer "40 or 50 years ago" in a Pocono Mountains vacation home (idyllically designed by John Lee Beatty). Burt Hines (Dick Latessa) is the 50ish patriarch whose business success has left him with a lovely country place, a wife who walked out on him and a series of heart attacks that will make this summer his last. His loving 22-year-old daughter, Josie (Suzanne Cryer), remains angry at mother Annie (Kelly Bishop) for the divorce years earlier, so Mom's weekend arrival at Dad's invitation promises tension.
"I felt something brewing in the air that day," says loyal and loving housekeeper Clemma (L. Scott Caldwell in the standout performance), "something only people with discontent and aching hearts can make." Clemma needn't be a psychic for such portentous musings: Also converging for the weekend are Josie's recently rebuffed and heartbroken ex-fiance, Ken (Reg Rogers); Ken's best friend (and Josie's secret love), the novelist-next-door Ray (Matt Letscher); Ray's stupid-model girlfriend, Sammii (Katie Finneran); Vinnie (Peter Rini), an Italian stallion from Miami smitten by Josie ("This guy's got a black belt in handshaking!"); and Lewis (Mel Winkler), Clemma's ramblin' husband.
Romances kindle and rekindle, old wounds are bared and grievances forgiven, all with the trademark Simon humor that this time around seems worse for the wear. "Your skin is so well-protected a safecracker couldn't get through," says bitter daughter Josie in a typical put-down of her jet-setting mom, Annie. After the girl tries to break off her engagement through a poem, Ken snaps, "That's how you break off with Shelley or Keats!"
Not all of the repartee is so improbable, though, nor is all the serious dialogue as banal as the where-did-we-go-wrong encounter between Mom and Dad ("Is being good together the same as being in love?" he asks about Annie's new marriage). But the success-failure ratio of the zings is hardly up with Simon's best, and this collection of one-note characters is among the least credible in the playwright's canon.
A play in which each cartoon type is fated to pair up with the cartoon type most approximating himself, "Proposals" finds its level of humor in Vinnie's repeated mangling of the English language (Norm Crosby should sue). "It was like ancient Rome," the gold-chained Vinnie says after watching Ken and Ray argue, "a fight between two gladiolas." Simon occasionally winks that Vinnie isn't as dumb as he appears, but to little "uh-vantage," as Vinnie would say.
Equally comic-strip is Sammii, a dumb blonde who spends most of "Proposals" sobbing over a dead bird (the play's low point is the funeral). However well played by Rini and Finneran, these characters seem to have arrived at the Poconos direct from the Catskills.
Cast members with less formidable challenges fare better. Latessa and Winkler are so likable it's hard to imagine them as the insensitive husbands they're supposed to have been, and Letscher is fine in the white-bread role of the hopeful author. Bishop is a bit too elusive as the prodigal mother (dressed in get-ups improbably glamorous for the country --- it's never explained how the ex-wife of a TV salesman marries into Parisian society), and Cryer a touch too flinty to account for all the love interests, but both women have their moments. Rogers, as the dumped boyfriend, is affecting at first, but so overplays the hangdog stuff he's like David Schwimmer on a bender.
Only Caldwell, through force of personality, completely transforms her role from caricature to character, giving life to a type that even sitcoms have moved beyond. There was more than a little patronizing going on in the writing of this character --- it takes Clemma's soulful wisdom and compassion to set the white folks right --- but Caldwell's portrayal has enough texture to move past it. Her performance alone justifies the seemingly arbitrary choice of Clemma as narrator: For all this play's faults, its author still knows a crowd-pleaser when he sees it.