One of the great challenges for a director involves taking a slightly dated play like Neil Simon’s I Ought to Be in Pictures and making it work. That the latest Peter’s Alley Theatre Production is so successful is a tribute to director Aly B. Ettman and her talented cast.
Herb Tucker (Bruce Rauscher) is a struggling, burned out screenwriter in late 1970s Hollywood. He’s an immature Peter Pan type, wary of commitment and content with his undemanding girlfriend Steffy (Tanya Bennett). He has managed to put out of his memory the Brooklyn wife and family he abandoned 16 years earlier until his 19 year-old daughter Libby arrives unexpectedly on his doorstep. She wants her long-absent father to pay up for his abandonment by helping her become an actress despite having the thinnest imaginable resume.
For younger readers, Neil Simon is one of the giants of American comedy. After starting out in television writing for legends such as Sid Caesar and Phil Silvers, he became a hugely successful Broadway playwright (Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple) and screenwriter (The Goodbye Girl).
I Ought to Be in Pictures is interesting as a transitional work in Simon’s evolution. It premiered on Broadway in 1980, playing 324 performances. It illustrates his likeable “humor with a heart” approach to serious subjects and an occasional easy fallback to one-line gags, a writing style than was more popular with audiences than critics.
Yet I Ought to Be in Pictures is one of Simon’s more serious works. It foreshadowed his greatest critical successes, his three autobiographical plays (Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound) and 1991’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Lost in Yonkers.
Herb is a difficult character for modern audiences. The role could be more sardonic (think Ron Liebman, the Broadway Herb who later was the original Roy Cohn in Angels in America) or world weary (as in the 1982 film version starring Walter Matthau, who also was the original Oscar Madison in Simon’s The Odd Couple). Yet today’s audiences are less likely to accept a narcissistic, self-centered man who casually admits cheating on his girlfriend.
I Ought to Be in Pictures
closes May 21, 2017
Details and tickets
Rauscher finds a way to make Herb and his foibles more understanding and sympathetic. He plays the role as more of a Woody Allen-ish helpless neurotic. He makes the character warmer and more understandable in a way that grows on the audience. Making the character work is especially important for this play, which does not have Simon’s sharpest, most successful humor.
Another winning portrayal is Jenna Murphy as Libby. The role (played both on Broadway and in the film by Dinah Manoff) could easily be more of an entitled brat. Murphy makes Libby much more outgoing and independent in spirit, more consistent with women of today. She also has a nice way of making the humor seem fresh and funny, illustrated by her accounts of “conversations” with her dead grandmother.
The final character in this three-hander is Steffy, an idealized beautiful and saintly late 30s girlfriend who works as a Hollywood make-up artist when not spending her weekly night over at Herb’s bungalow. It’s the least fleshed out character, yet Tanya Bennett makes her gentle quest for a deeper commitment seem more real than the relationship is written.
Even lesser, slightly dated Neil Simon material is a treat. Simon’s skilled craftsmanship is shown in the initial meeting between Libby and Steffy which painlessly slips in the needed exposition before Libby and Herb meet. The play has ample satisfying humor along the journey that leads Herb to greater maturity and Libby to achieving the relationship resolution that she craves beneath her confident service.
Director Aly B. Ettman’s skill is especially evident in the second act, when the characters have had two weeks together. The way in which Herb and Libby relate shows a natural increase in closeness that makes Herb’s new interest and concern about his daughter believable.
Scenic designer Dan Remmers also helps in the transition showing Libby’s influence on the bungalow’s décor and neatness. In addition, the entire production has nice late 1970s period details, ranging from Herb’s feathered haircut to the period music that plays pre-show and during intermission.
The Peter’s Alley production of I Ought to Be in Pictures successfully treads the fine line of being both sentimental and touching. It’s astute and assured handling of classic Neil Simon material feels as comfortable and satisfying as a warm bath.
I Ought to Be in Pictures by Neil Simon. Directed by Aly B. Ettman. Featuring Bruce Rauscher, Jenna Murphy and Tanya Bennett. Scenic Design: Dan Remmers. Lighting Design: Peter Caress. Sound Design: David Jung. Costume Design: Aly B. Ettman. Graphic Design / Marketing: Michael Philip. Production Stage Manager: Sara K. Smith. Resident Stage Manager: David Jung. Assistant Stage Manager / Assistant Director: Nathaniel Klein. Produced by Peter’s Alley Theatre Productions. Reviewed by Steven McKnight.