John Cullum and Patricia Hodgesin Rose's Dilemma(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
John Cullum and Patricia Hodges
in Rose's Dilemma
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
According to some reports, Neil Simon blamed Mary Tyler Moore for not getting laughs in his Rose's Dilemma and thus hastened her pre-opening departure from the Manhattan Theatre Club's production of the play. If that's the case, then the former owes the latter an abject apology. There are disappointingly few laughs for an actor to get in this wistful new work.

Much of the proof is in Patricia Hodges's performance. As playwright/novelist Rose Steiner, who's haunted by her five-years-dead novelist lover and unable to write because of an inability to move on, Hodges works like a trouper to vivify Simon's lines. But the dialogue she and colleagues speak does something that's apparently possible in literature but impossible in architecture: it's simultaneously flat and arch.

Hodges -- who resembles Moore and probably fit quite comfortably into the casual outfits that William Ivey Long designed for her unfortunate predecessor -- gesticulates incessantly as she talks to her returned-from-the-dead paramour, Walsh McLaren (the reliable John Cullum). Looking like a tropical fish on Zoloft, the actress regularly affects an open-mouthed expression of bemusement as she banters with Walsh, her assistant Arlene (the appealing Geneva Carr), and Gavin Clancy (the outstanding David Aaron Baker), a young novelist whom Rose hopes will complete an unfinished McLaren manuscript. Hodges occasionally holds a finger or two under her chin to suggest Katharine Hepburn-like chic. At one point in her valiant go at giving bounce to a flaccid piece, she literally plants her tongue so deeply in her cheek that the right side of her face takes on a chipmunk's roundness.

But Hodges's pulling out of all stops can't make this soufflé rise; that also goes for director Lynne Meadow and the able members of the creative team, among them lighting designer Pat Collins and sound designer Bruce Ellman. It's a good bet that no theater professionals laboring on sweatshop hours could make much of this script as it stands or, rather, falls on its embarrassed face. Once again, an author has devised a set-up in which someone talking to a dead person is mistakenly assumed by others on stage to be addressing them. Noël Coward made the device work sublimely in Blithe Spirit and it's been effective one or two times before and since, but perhaps a theater law should be passed that it is never to be employed again. It seems that there's no more humor to be wrung from the situation. If there is, Simon -- who used to have a bead on light-hearted comedy with a sting -- hasn't discovered it.

Not only does Simon borrow or at least pay homage to Coward, he also does a fair amount of lifting from himself. Rose's refusal to free herself of a dead spouse's hold is reminiscent of Simon's Chapter Two, in which author and recent widower George Schneider can't relax into a new romance because the past preoccupies him. Rose's edgy relationship with Arlene, who's eventually revealed to be her once-estranged daughter, recalls the mother/offspring wrangling in Simon's 1971 play The Gingerbread Lady (filmed in 1979 as Only When I Laugh). Other influences: The mentor/student understanding that's briefly referred to in Rose's Dilemma echoes Donald Margulies's Collected Stories, which also bowed at the Manhattan Theatre Club and in which the older writer isn't Rose Steiner but Ruth Steiner. And in the final moment of Rose's Dilemma, Simon shockingly paraphrases -- with no indication that he's kidding -- one of Tennessee Williams's most affecting curtain lines.

If the clinging-to-the-past material is stale and also stretched from here to East Hampton, where the play is set (Thomas Lynch has designed a let's-move-in-now beachfront house), what does Simon offer to make Rose's Dilemma feel new and emotionally involving? There isn't a great deal to say about Rose and Walsh, particulars of whose private and public lives closely parallel those of Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett -- closely but not exactly, since nothing Rose says or does indicates that she could ever have turned out literature comparable to Hellman's oeuvre. Neither is there blood in the Rose/Arlene confrontation, which has an obligatory-scene air about it and which includes some bottom-of-the barrel remarks that Simon has put into Roses's mouth -- e.g., "What have I done to you?" and "How do we get on with our lives?" Ugh.

David Aaron Baker and Geneva Carr in Rose's Dilemma(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
David Aaron Baker and Geneva Carr in Rose's Dilemma
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Simon does have some success with the character of Gavin Clancy. He's introduced into the plot when the deceased but persistent Walsh tells Rose that the young writer is the one to complete the final 40 pages of a McLaren mystery tagged Mexican Stand-off, which has been gathering dust in a cupboard. Contacted by Rose, Clancy arrives looking something of a shambles and explains that he's given up composing fiction but will at least read the book that's being passed off as Rose's work. The young man also likes the look of Arlene -- although, at first, the two have some oil-and-vinegar moments. Clancy's down-to-earth quality has a freshness to it, especially as the sly and likeable David Aaron Baker plays the low-key but forthright fellow. And if Simon can bring Gavin to life and make his romancing of Arlene so appealing, he can't be entirely dismissed.

This brings up another aspect of Rose's Dilemma that doesn't redeem the play but raises an intriguing question about Simon's view of himself. Is Rose, who glancingly refers to her severe case of writer's block, subbing for Simon? The prolific and acclaimed playwright -- while certainly not blocked, as this piece attests -- may nonetheless be wondering about the current state of his abilities. His last few plays have been below par. No question that 45 Seconds From Broadway, which bowed on Broadway just about two years ago and closed not long afterward, was a washout. Nor were his two previous original plays, The Dinner Party and Proposals, anything to write home about. (There have been some revivals in the interim, and The Goodbye Girl has just been filmed as a TV movie.) Interestingly, Simon includes none of those three recent titles in his bio. Has he forgotten them, or does he want to forget them?

Perhaps Rose's Dilemma represents Simon examining the denial he manifests elsewhere --- for instance, in blaming tepid audience response on actors rather than on himself. Perhaps this play isn't really about Rose's dilemma but about his own, which isn't resolved by anything in the work's two unpromising acts.

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[Editor's Note: Click here to access TheaterMania's review of Rose and Walsh, a previous version of Rose's Dilemma that was presented in Los Angeles.]