Len Cariou and Jane Alexanderin Rose & Walsh(Photo: Ken Howard)
Len Cariou and Jane Alexander
in Rose & Walsh
(Photo: Ken Howard)
What would have happened if Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett had continued their love affair long after his death? This is the promising premise of Neil Simon's new play Rose & Walsh. Despite its ambition, the work fails due to a listless script and shockingly stilted performances from Tony Award winners Jane Alexander and Len Cariou, sadly making Simon's latest a wilted rose of a play.

Rose (Alexander), a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, has a deep love for Walsh (Cariou), a literary great of modern mystery fiction. The five years since his death have only enhanced their romance, as they continue to argue, to theorize, and to display affection. Rose and Walsh are the perfect couple -- so what if no one else can see the man?

Complications arise when Walsh turns 65 -- or at least 60 plus five years of death. He has chosen to retire from their relationship, to vanish to the netherworld. In his place, he desires to leave a legacy, a nest egg for Rose and her assistant, Arlene (Marin Hinkle from TV's Once and Again). That legacy is Walsh's incomplete novel, Mexican Stand-off, which rests hidden in a cabinet. Unfortunately, Rose couldn't see a speeding train coming towards her, even with her glasses on, because she's legally -- and illegally -- blind. So Walsh forces Rose to hire a "ghost" writer, Clancy (David Aaron Baker), a pulp fiction artist who believes a disheveled appearance and a breath of lingering smoke and Heineken makes for a distinguished writer. For the proper Rose, this collaboration with the slovenly young writer makes for another Neil Simon Odd Couple.

There are some trademark zingers for sure in Simon's script, most utilizing Rose as the mouthpiece. When she says lines like, "Come upstairs, I hate it when we make love and you're downstairs" and "Never judge a woman by what she wears, it's what she buys that counts," it shows that Simon still has a knack for the female mystique. What he can't prevent is turning Rose and Walsh into a trite Ghost knockoff. If Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze could generate buckets of tears with Bruce Joel Rubin's script, how could Neil Simon not emit any pathos from master actors Alexander and Cariou? Maybe because Rose and Walsh never rise above sitcom characters shooting punchlines at each other. The script only gels during the confrontation between Rose and Arlene in the second act when, finally, revelations regarding their relationship add needed dimension. Unfortunately, the final scene seems so painfully obvious that the play ends on a false note. One thing's for sure, this script is messier than Oscar Madison's bedroom.

Director David Esbjornson paces the show like a funeral. Instead of lines overlapping like tommy-gun bullets, dead air fills the theater within many interactions, particularly in the first scene. The staging also appears amateurish and lacking relevance. I have adored Jane Alexander for years. She was devastating in Testament; in five minutes of All The President's Men, she managed to steal scenes from Dustin Hoffman -- she's a luminous presence, but here she appears tired. True, the character is on her last legs, but that should only be implied. Both Alexander and Cariou flubbed lines in the opening scenes, performing as if it were a run-through. Neither natural instincts nor strong direction prevented them from histrionics throughout the play.

It's the supporting actors Hinkle and Baker who shine. Baker is reminiscent of a young Kirk Douglas. Loud, sloppy and proud, his energy saturates the theater. Hinkle's role is essentially that of a wallflower until the middle of the second act. She has one scene to make an impression, and in that scene she is heartbreaking as she begs her best friend to pay more attention to the living than the dead.

Designer John Arnone's impressive set brings East Hampton to the West Coast. A country style home with wood paneling and a paisley-slip covered couch create a nostalgic, comfortably lived-in impression. When the curtains billow in the summer ocean breezes, you sense a house alive with spirits.

If only this Neil Simon offering were as alive. There is the essence of a play hidden somewhere here, one that ponders the connections between the past and the present, the living with the dead, and the adoration one can feel for a memory. With work, Rose and Walsh could be a definitive Simon production. But for now, it's merely a chaotic attempt at one.