Comedies about revenants are a relatively recent English subgenre. (In tragedy, ghosts have thrived since God knows when.) Prime examples are Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit and David Auburn’s Proof. Now Neil Simon weighs in with Rose’s Dilemma, about a famous playwright, Rose Steiner, in her early-sixties decline. She misses her consort, the novelist Walsh McLaren, these five years dead. At play’s start, Arlene, a much younger friend, is trying to bring order to Rose’s failing finances, as they sit late at night in Rose’s elegant East Hampton beach house.
Prodigal Rose has been overindulging in flowers, and tries to justify it as a surrogate for a man: “Did you ever really smell a strong, interesting man? . . . If they could bottle that, there’d be no lonely women in the world.” First, what kind of substitute are flowers for a man? Is there even such a thing as a strong-interesting-man smell? If the interesting man doesn’t wash, of course. But then, how does that differ from the effluvia of an unwashed uninteresting man? Above all, how would bottled interesting-man smell relieve female loneliness? Has anyone been assuaged by going to bed with a scent?
In other words, right off the bat Simon is straining—grasping—for humor in the preposterous, which is the wrong address for true humor. Anyhow, Walsh pops up onstage in the person of John Cullum, visible only to Rose. Perhaps not even a real ghost, only a figment for Rose to converse and go to bed with, although, as she notes, “sex with a dead man isn’t half as good as I was led to believe.” That, again, is a laugh line strictly from hunger: Who could have possibly led her to believe such a canard?
Throughout Rose’s Dilemma, Simon, the world’s most successful and wealthy playwright, shows signs of having written himself out. Strong, interesting plays, unlike strong, interesting men, have no smell, but Simon’s recent efforts reach not our hearts and minds, only our noses. Here the plot concerns what happens when Rose calls upon Gavin Clancy, a young one-hit writer, to finish a novel of Walsh’s she has kept in a cabinet, and the proceedings include young love between Gavin and Arlene, and the danger of losing Walsh, whose leave from the beyond will end in a fortnight. I am betraying little if I say that the piece concludes with two happy couples and much sentimental claptrap.
The production aroused some interest when Simon’s mortifying letter to Mary Tyler Moore caused her to quit, and the understudy to take over, during previews. Alas, a Rose by any other name—in this case Patricia Hodges—smells just as unsweet from sweat under the collar. An uncharismatic actress in a needy vehicle, Hodges overacts relentlessly, which contrasts woefully with Cullum’s easy charm as Walsh. As the young couple, David Aaron Baker is a similarly graceful Gavin, with Geneva Carr an adequate Arlene; all are competently directed by Lynne Meadow. Not to be faulted are the set by Thomas Lynch, the costumes by William Ivey Long, and lighting by Pat Collins. I am not quite sure what was Rose’s dilemma; mine was whether or not to leave at intermission.
Keith Reddin’s Frame 312 concerns the Kennedy assassination, the Zapruder film of it, and a semifictitious character, Lynette Porter, who has an uncomfortably close connection to the film, and, three decades later, reveals her troubling secret to her family. That family consists of a sedated but outspoken daughter, the likable Stephanie; a not-so-likable and demanding son, Tom; his very average wife, Marie; and their two children, who, commendably, remain offstage. Further characters include Graham, an editor at Life magazine for whom the young Lynette (the play shuttles between 1963–64 and 1998) worked; Margie, her chatty sixties friend; and others ranging from an FBI agent to a nervous woman on a train. It is all intelligent and personable, but one keeps expecting some major insight, some historical revelation, that never materializes. The payoff is as minor-key and down-in-the-mouth as they come.