Is Neil Simon going soft? Or is the prodigiously industrious playwright tapped out? One hopes not, but his latest effort, "I Ought to Be in Pictures," an oddly muted comedy that arrived at the O'Neill last night, is, when all is said and done by its three characters, an empty and labored evening. "Shaky confidence" is ascribed to the middle-aged hero by his middle-aged mistress, and it also seems to be Simon's problem here. Teetering on the edge of sentimentality, this play about a father and daughter rediscovering - or discovering, really - one another after a long separation worries its subject all evening long, never daring to be either too funny or too caring.
It has been written and directed (by Herbert Ross) and is acted with painstaking attention to detail and an almost solemn air of sincerity. But there is little evidence of enthusiasm in the writing, so that in the end we are only aware of contrivance and of characters who vanish from our consciousness like puffs of smoke.
Herb Tucker is a down-on-his-luck screenwriter living in a bright, cheerless horror of a cracked-stucco, tiled-roof West Hollywood bungalow with a single bedroom and a small plot of ground on which he has proudly grown an orange tree and a lemon tree, objects to which Simon glancingly attaches symbolic significance. Sixteen years earlier, Herb simply up and left his wife and two small children, a boy and girl, in Brooklyn (he offers two seemingly contradictory reasons for his action, but no matter), and within a month was settled in movieland.
For two years now, and after a couple of short-lived Hollywood marriages, he has been having a comfortable affair (on Tuesday nights only; in between, he sees other women) with a divorcee named Steffy Blondell, who has a good job as a movie makeup woman and two kids of her own. Steffy would like Herb to give up his ratty dwelling and move in with her, but there's that "shaky confidence."
Enter Libby Tucker, Herb's 19-year-old daughter (the orange tree), who has bused and hitchhiked her way west with the avowed intention of becoming a movie star, but actually to get to know and receive a sign of love from her dad, whom she has neither seen nor heard from since she was three. A spunky, plain-looking girl, she gets her wish and heads back to Brooklyn after a two-week stay.
We leave Herb at the typewriter, ready for action once more, as Steffy slips off to prepare a Chinese dinner at her presumably more livable house. Maybe there's hope for Herb after all.
Herb, a distant cousin of the sports writer Oscar in Simon's "Odd Couple," remains a faithful fan of the Dodgers, even in L.A., and an occasional inspector of horse flesh at Hollywood Park. Ron Leibman plays him skillfully, getting off a few good Simon sallies and rising to his one sustained comic scene in a description to his daughter of the limited possibilities of her being discovered in a town with "5,000 agents" vying for the same jobs on their clients' behalfs.
Dinah Manoff is a forthright Libby; who has the odd habit of consulting her dead grandma with some regularity. And Simon, not without effort, fills out her role and the second act by having her consult her father about sex.
The first half ends, by the way, with Libby reading from "The Belle of Amherst," Emily Dickinson's description of the loss of her father, a brief passage so moving that it doesn't belong in the same theater with "I Ought to Be in Pictures."
Joyce Van Patten, who keeps popping in and out, plays a vacuous role engagingly.
David Jenkins' gleefully detailed set is enough to discourage prospective L.A. home buyers and visitors to the area alike, and Nancy Potts' costumes and Tharon Musser's lighting add to the shabby splendor of a region the sun-hating Herb describes as having "30 inches" of rain in two hours and nothing but sun the rest of the year.
One can sense the tone Simon is striving for in "I Ought to Be in Pictures," but it has eluded him along with any suggestion of genuine feeling, the result being a dead play.
Neil Simon is a very funny man, and if that is news to you, you have not been paying attention. But Simon's crackerjack wisecracks are not the most interesting thing about him. Like every major playwright - those who are not merely for the passing show - he explores a world. In his case it is a world of middle-class, Jewish, creative angst.
The latest exploration into the world according to Simon, is I Ought To Be In Pictures, which opened last night at the Eugene O'Neill Theater. It is terrific. It is also another chapter of man against the machine, or what is this nice Jewish boy doing in a hell-hole like this? Of course he jokes - what is he going to do, cry? Of course he cries - who can always be joking?
Herb, the hero of I Ought To Be In Pictures, is a Hollywood scriptwriter. Three years ago he wrote a script that was filmed. Now writer's blocks keep on falling on him on the way to the studio. He seems to support himself by playing the horses - at that, at least, he is lucky.
He owns a run-down shack with attendant citrus trees in West Hollywood, a crumbling Mustang that has seen better months, a typewriter with cramp, and a super-understanding mistress who has visiting rights on Tuesdays. Sixteen years and three marriages ago Herb got up in the middle of a plate of soup in Brooklyn - which is where he was living at the time - smiled wanly at his wife, packed his bags and left for Los Angeles. Remaining in Brooklyn were an under-amused wife, a daughter of three and an infant son. And California there he went.
For 16 years it has been silence between Herb and the family he knew in Brooklyn. (He had clearly married the only woman in the 20th-century who had never heard of lawyers - but as I told you, he is even lucky at horses). Now a tough little waif of an Orphan Annie, who wants to be a movie star and goes to the graveyard to talk to her dead grandmother, knocks on his door, and says, in effect: "Daddy, you owe me." Now, let Simon tell you what happens.
Unlike most modern playwrights, Simon makes no real attempt at naturalism in dialogue. He says things that people would like to have said, rather than the things people actually would have said.
More and more, however, the humor of his plays finds its scope in character rather than situations or even verbal pyrotechnics. His best plays have always centered on the confrontation between apples and oranges, and the often sentimental recognition that they both are fruits at heart.
Here, for example, one of the loveliest passages is the father trying to answer his daughter's questions on the emotional realities of sex, or the mistress trying to explain her need for a commitment. Of course, every time anyone gets too serious they bounce manically on a joke like a trampoline, but the seriousness nowadays in Simon, is enhanced rather than diminished, by such evasion.
As everyone knows, who know such things, the play had horrendous problems in its California premiere, which was more California sour than California sweet. But never judge anything on its out of town opening, even a can of soup. Here and now on Broadway, everything was sweet, dandy and touching.
What happened I have little interest in knowing, but part of it must have been due to the director, Herbert Ross, who has done a handsomely delicate job here. I suppose nowadays Ross, the lost choreographer of his generation, is more a film than a stage director. This shows here, in the way he almost babies his cast at times into virtually close-up leaps of acting that have more to do with movies than the theater.
It is a similar technique to what Ingmar Bergman uses on the stage in plays as diverse as Hedda Gabler or The Misanthrope - a momentary concentration of energy on an actor like a spotlight. Effective. Ross ought to be in pictures - but not to the exclusion of theater. The setting by David Jenkins is pleasant but just about tacky enough to feed the insatiable prejudices of decent New Yorkers against the orange-juice coast.
Finally - but certainly not lastly - three cleverly poised performances. Dina Manoff is charm personified as the Brooklyn waif, and gives a most delicate and appealing performance. Joyce Van Patten shows a fine style in understanding as the loyal but neglected mistress. Ron Leibman should stop raising his voice at the end of every sentence, but builds the texture of his character, almost its blood and guts, with total conviction.
This is not your ordinary laugh-machine, six-jokes-a-minute Simon, but it is a mature, memorable play that brings great joy to the season.
I'm sorry, but Neil Simon sentimental isn't as good as Neil Simon funny. The commonest critical complaint against Mr. Simon is that he's too funny, or that he's trying to be. The usual message sent him is to cut out the gag-lines and get down to something truer. It's always seemed to me, though, that when he's got a bit of truth to jar us with - and he's come up with some stingers in his time - it normally pops out of the comedy itself. An inside job, not an outside one.
"I Ought to Be in Pictures," which opened at the Eugene O'Neill last night, strikes me as an outside job and a rather pallid one. Naturally, it comes supplied with its own quota of quips and quivering frenzies. Ron Leibman, as a once-successful Hollywood writer whose scripts are getting turned down pretty regularly by CBS these days, isn't really read for what he has to face when he finally succeeds in getting both eyes open one very late sunlit morning. (His left eye is open but presumably bloodshot; his right remains closed, lying in wait for cloudy weather.)
What he has to face when he can distinguish lemons from oranges (both grow on dusty tress in his dingy backyard) is his daughter. He's walked out on his Brooklyn-based family some 16 years earlier and hasn't seen wife, son or daughter in all the untidy years since (there isn't a piece of furniture on the premises that isn't draped with shreds of clothing; a disconsolate tie droops from a light fixture on the wall).
The girl is 19, she's hitchhiked across country with a tam on her head and a pack on her back, and she'd like her father to use his influence to get her into films. She is extremely confident, extremely articulate and seems not to make a move without consulting her grandmother, who has been dead for six years. This last bit of information rather worries Mr. Leibman. He asks if she also consults her grandfather, who lies in the very next grave. The girl shakes her head no. "He doesn't talk to grandma, why should he talk to me?"
Quips, you see. And elaborate "takes" from the skilled Mr. Leibman while his face is slowly unwrinkling from his too memorable night, gradually finding its contours again the way a tiger lily does come dawn. Later, there will be shudders and staggers and moanings at the bar - the bar that separates fake-Spanish kitchen - as this father becomes ever more anxiously paternal about his rediscovered offspring.
But the comedy is casual, even half-hearted I'd say, because it isn't Mr. Simon's real concern this time around. His mind is firmly on that father daughter relationship (quite skipping over the off-and-on sleep-in relationship Mr. Leibman has with Joyce Van Patten, who is awfully good as a cheerful and utterly undemanding makeup woman at Columbia Pictures). A father is worried about his failing career, having gone from his one-time "two grand" a week to endless rejection slips. He becomes even more worried about this fledgling who's not only able to redo the house and reconstruct his car, but is also secure enough to make her own way among the famous and (daddy fears) the infamous of Beverly Hills. As the girl puts it, "I'm on the way up on the Local, you're on the way down, Express."
She's no brat, mind you. She's not really trying to advance herself, she's trying to salvage him. And maybe pick up a bit of lost love along the way. Which means that, somewhere beneath all the bumptious self-assurance, she's vulnerable. Dinah Manoff plays the role with enormous expertise. But we're now edging to what is most curious about the part, the relationship and the play.
Advertised as 19, Miss Manoff looks and behaves a good three to five years younger than that, bouncing about the terrain and issuing challenges with the unthinking candor, the un-self-conscious animation, the transparent guilelessness of a kid. We're puzzled, at first. Has the actress miscalculated a bit? Has director Herbert Ross guided her toward an underlying innocence that's a bit thick in a girl skating 20?
No, the fact of the matter is that it's written that way. In turning away from the sophisticates he's the most accustomed to, and turning toward an emotional tug and pull dependent upon the perils of early adolescence, Mr. Simon has not only ventured into theatrical territory unfamiliar to him. He also seems unaware that anyone else has been over the territory before, though it's straight Andy Hardy down the line. (Reverse genders, and we're back home at M-G-M.)
How late can that child be out at night in that car? Father Leibman's apprehension reduces him to jelly by 12:30. When, a week later, she's stretched her time on the town until 3 A.M., he's a basket case. Mr. Leibman makes a good basket case, you may be sure, and he's extravagantly accomplished when jellied. But it's all overreaction. Given the stated age of the girl, and the skills we know her to possess, the situation - like her wreck of a parent - is out of control. We can't laugh all that much, or feel all that much, if we stop believing.
Comes the obligatory discussion, man-to-girl, of sex. Miss Manoff waives the preliminaries; she does know the mechanics of the subject. But on to her deeper questions. Is it different for the boy and the girl? Does it hurt? Or is it fun? How did her mother feel about sex with him? Was she scared, or excited? Mr. Leibman struggles to be honest, with hesitations, just as old Judge Hardy used to do (of course, the good judge didn't have to field the one about how things went with his wife). Upshot: Mr. Leibman assured her it can be "wonderful, giving herself to someone." Chummy clap on the shoulder.
But we're dealing with a naïveté here unthinkable in the 19-year-old Mr. Simon has tried to fashion for us, probing what are probably the very first issues to be settled by girl-talk. At 12 or 13, maybe? If our faith in the evening hasn't been shaken before, it's surely tottering now.
One other strange ambiguity: Mr. Simon hasn't ever quite told us why his scriptwriter has lately hit the skids, an omission that makes the play's upbeat ending too cozily cooked up. Please understand that "I Ought to Be in Pictures" is trimly mounted, nicely paced, professionally glossy - even if implausible. And, though the emphasis is on the sugary side of things, there are laughs to relieve the earnest intimacies.
Mr. Leibman knows a snapper when he's given one. The girl wants to know what to call him. Back he comes: "You don't know what to call your father? Your own father? Call me Herb." Perfectly timed. Miss Manoff is given a moment of real charm. Writing to her mother, she wants Mr. Leibman to say a word or two she can quote. He instructs her to tell her mother she's done a damn good job of bringing her up. The girl, delighted, types it in. She then asks if he'll initial the paragraph. Nice.