Ghost Stories

For Your Eyes Only: Cullum, left, and Hodges in Neil Simon's Dilemma.Photo: Carol Rosegg

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.

A pleasant though insufficiently adaptable suburban set by Walt Spangler, decent direction by Karen Kohlhaas, and respectable performances by Larry Bryggman, Maggie Kiley, Mary Beth Peil, Mandy Siegfried, Greg Stuhr, and especially Elizabeth Hanly Rice (admittedly in the plummiest role) help pass the evening painlessly. But the rewards are somewhere between modest and minimal.

The recipe for a cooking show, of which there are currently two, seems to be personal reminiscences induced by cooking, and philosophy induced by autobiography. So we have Jonathan Reynolds, playwright and culinary columnist, combining his two skills into Dinner With Demons, a dazzling display of cookery with polished palaver that is mostly witty or, at the very least, cute.

For me, as a kitchen-illiterate, the array of fancy dishes dexterously prepared is breathtaking, and the reminiscing no less savory: dusted with the surreal, spiced with the apocryphal, but crisp or bittersweet or mellow to match the food it garnishes. The main characters are a domineering and resented mother, nicknamed the Warden; a divorced, remote, superrich, Don Juan–esque father; and dapper, civilized, always helpful Uncle Bus. Also a rogue’s gallery of Mother’s satanic associates, and Bus’s angelically irresistible daughter, Lee Remick: “I fell in love with her the way most people who met her did—at first sight, passionately, and like a sheepdog.” This when Jonathan was 3, and Lee 9.

The reason for the show’s title is that “if you can’t exorcise your demons, you might as well have ’em over for dinner.” Some of these demons are long dead, some of them malevolent, but all coming to the scrumptious and memorious meal Jonathan is cooking up as he talks smoothly (he once was an actor), manipulates food like a prestidigitator, and exudes the Reynolds charm. There is discreet but suggestive background music, entrancing scenery (mostly glamorous cookware and colorful bottles magisterially deployed) by the author’s “main squeeze,” Heidi Ettinger, appetizing lighting by Kevin Adams, and savvy staging by Peter Askin. If only a stupid law did not deprive us from partaking of the food, as our taste buds are teased like schoolboy libidos by the pictures in girlie magazines.

On a much more modest scale, there is The Last Supper, in the hall of Ed Schmidt’s apartment, part modest kitchen, part pews with hymnals to hold some 30 people. Schmidt cooks very little, but reminisces profusely, mixing autobiography with his quarrel with religion, hence the pews. His memories and animadversions are interesting, delivered with humor and gusto, if somewhat overlong. Because remuneration is at your discretion, and the audience labeled “guests,” the law is circumvented, and we eventually sit down to a pleasant meal. If we are lucky in our table companions, the experience is not without its appeal.

The Last Letter is based on the eighteenth chapter of Vasily Grossman’s Russian novel Life and Fate, excerpted by Frederick Wiseman and adapted and directed by him first as a French theater piece and movie. Now, in Robert Chandler’s translation, he has brought it to our stage, as a dramatic monologue for Kathleen Chalfant. Grossman’s mother, like the play’s protagonist, Anna Semyonovna, was one of 30,000 Jews from the Ukrainian town of Berdichev shot by the Nazis in 1941. The piece imagines a farewell as Mrs. Grossman might have written to her son, Vasily, and as the barely fictional Anna writes—or speaks—to her own son, Vitya. So the play is as close as fiction can come to reality, and, given the enormity of the subject and ability of the writing, unfailingly moving. Wiseman, a documentary filmmaker, approaches theater in a quasi-factual, no-frills fashion. The set is simply a black backdrop, and there are no props. But the lighting designer, Donald Holder, has seen to it that, as Anna paces the stage, lights should catch her in different ways, casting one or several giant shadows, or enshrouded in a grim twilight, or face pinpointed by a spotlight into a small, heroic radiance soon to be engulfed by the surrounding dark. In 61 minutes, a terrific and terrifying statement is made about mass monstrosity and individual dignity, about the ugliest and finest aspects of human nature, about love and courage and suffering, presented in the starkest, most unhistrionic manner: sentiment free from sentimentality. Chalfant of the noble countenance plays Anna with quiet conviction and profound restraint; this is a letter for every human heart to serve as mailbox.

Ghost Stories