Proposals at Flat Rock Playhouse
Even a lesser known Neil Simon play, like Proposals, from 1997, is like theatrical comfort food. You know what to expect and the pleasures it will certainly impart, even if it’s uncomplicated, old-fashioned and contains a few ingredients that are no longer thought to be good for you.
Proposals is late-period Simon, a return to more elementary comedy after his acclaimed autobiographical Eugene Trilogy more than a decade earlier and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lost in Yonkers in 1991. It’s a throwback in any number of ways, and Flat Rock Playhouse honors its nostalgic bent with a production that could have been enjoyed by audiences anytime in the past 40 years.
Set in the mid 1950s, Proposals really takes place in that imaginary, apolitical post-World War II fantasy of America familiar from wistful movies and TV shows, whether Happy Days or Stephen King. Appropriately, it’s set up as a memory play, narrated on and off by Clemma, the African-American housekeeper for the Hines family, now consisting of just dad Burt and college-age daughter Josie.
As the title suggests, the play chiefly concerns itself with the romantic connections and disconnections of this trio, as a series of visitors show up all in the same late summer afternoon at the Hines’ cottage on a lake in the Poconos. Josie has an ex-fiancé, Ken, and an ex-flame, Ray; Burt has an ex-wife, Annie; and Clemma has an ex-husband, Lewis. Ray’s current flame is the ditsy Sammii, while Josie is being wooed by Vinnie, an Italian-American she danced with one night on a visit to Miami who has inexplicably driven to Pennsylvania to see her.
It’s much easier to keep track of this plus-size cast in the course of the show, as Simon gives each relationship substantial attention before introducing the next plot thread. (Sammii and Lewis don’t even appear until the second act.) Director Lisa K. Bryant keeps the pacing steady but doesn’t rush things, and she gives the cast breathing space to build their characters even as they attend to landing the laughs.
The performances are shaped to the material, which makes them broader and more theatrical than they would be for one of Flat Rock’s weightier productions. The funniest material is also the silliest, involving Vinnie’s shamelessly goombah malapropisms, which Flat Rock newcomer Brendan Malafronte delivers with aplomb. The play’s other cartoonish figure, Sammii, is hilariously handled by Flat Rock stalwart Maddie Franke, who gets what might be the biggest laugh of the show with her indignation over a dead bird.
The rest of the cast walks that fine line between character and caricature, most impressively demonstrated by a confrontation scene between Clemma and Lewis, in which actors Thursday Farrar and Dathan B. Williams, both new to Flat Rock, take a bundle of cliches and kindle some genuine emotional heat. Flat Rock favorite Paige Posey similarly infuses Annie with grace and gravitas, chiefly playing against Stewart Gregory, back at Flat Rock after a few years’ absence. Gregory gives a playful yet bittersweet turn as Burt, who seems something of a Simon stand-in, as both observer of everyone else and deliverer of on-point one-liners.
The younger players who make up the show’s central love triangle are Katie Barton as Josie and Grayson Powell and Allen Law as the best friends who have both dated her. It’s the most difficult story line to pull off, since the three have to run through a summer’s worth of loyalties in an imaginary afternoon, but the performers make the best of it, with Barton remaining grounded in Josie’s sense of self, Law evolving nicely from scornful to sensitive, and Powell eliciting a good dose of laughter out of Ken’s endless exasperation.
Just as the Hines family may be spending their last season at their beloved summer home, Proposals was Simon’s last effort at the sweet, light romantic comedies for which he was so well-known. It’s every bit a trip down memory lane, complete with a gorgeous set by Sandra Lopez (with props by Cassidy Bowles) that starts the journey as soon as you walk into the Leiman Mainstage auditorium. CJ Barnwell’s rich lighting design and David Gerena’s sound design bring this Poconos paradise to life around the performers. It’s a place free from political correctness and barely touched by roiling social changes, but audience members willing to untether themselves for a couple hours will enjoy its specifically American dream of a past that never was.
Proposals runs through June 1 at Flat Rock Playhouse. For details and tickets, visit flatrockplayhouse.org.
(Photo: Flat Rock Playhouse)