NEW YORK, Jan. 10 (UPI) -- Neil Simon's 33rd play, "Rose's Dilemma," reflects a mellower mood for the 77-year-old playwright who used to have audiences rolling in the aisles and is now more content to draw chuckles rather than guffaws.
Simon's new work produced by the Manhattan Theater Club at City Center, just a step from Broadway where he used to reign supreme as the king of comedy, is a sometimes carelessly written but mostly satisfying work if you don't mind one of the characters being the ghost of the husband of Rose Steiner, the lady of the play's title.
Rose was to have been played by Mary Tyler Moore, but she walked out during rehearsals after being reprimanded by Simon for not remembering her lines. Moore was replaced by her understudy, Patricia Hodges, a sexy middle-aged ash blonde who thinks she sees her husband, talks to him, and occasionally has sex with him.
"To be quite frank, sex with a dead man isn't half as good as I was led to believe," she reports confidentially, leaving the audience to wonder from whom she got her misinformation.
Hodges comes to the role with gilt-edged credentials from a long career on Broadway, off-Broadway, regional theater, film, and television, and handles the role with eccentric charm, occasionally laid on so thick it seems artificial. Nonetheless she puts on a good show in the role of a popular author that Simon obviously based on the late Lillian Hellman, who could be as irritating as Rose and just as fascinating.
The story begins with Rose in her East Hampton, N.Y., beach house, out of ideas for a book and running low on funds. Her ectoplasmic husband, Walsh McLaren (playing the Dashiell Hammett role to Rose's Hellman), suggests she finish one of his manuscripts with the help of a ghostwriter and get it published so she can breathe easily again financially.
Enter the ghostwriter, a one-novel washout named Gavin Clancy, who is not only delighted to work on a book started by McLaren, his idol, but is eager to court Rose's live-in friend, her secret daughter, Arlene Moss. It's a tempestuous courtship that inspires some of the conversational zingers for which Simon is justly famous.
Zingers, however, are not a stinging as they used to be in earlier Simon plays.
There is something almost elegiac about "Rose's Dilemma," a sentimentality that comes with age to playwrights and most other people. Thomas Lynch's set of a shabby-at-the-edges living room overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and Pat Collins' late-summer lighting effects also contribute a somewhat mournful note to the production, slickly directed by Lynne Meadow, artistic director of the Manhattan Theater Club.
Needless to say there is a happy though bittersweet ending to "Rose's Dilemma," which is about banishing the past to make it possible to live in the present. Much of the play's effectiveness is result of the interplay between Hodges and John Cullum, a revered Tony Award-winning actor in the role of the blithe spirit.
Cullum makes McLaren, a one-time heavy drinker and womanizer, a font of forbearance and wisdom without losing his suave, Noel Coward-ish persona enhanced by costume designer William Ivey Long's well-tailored wardrobe. He is a ghost you wouldn't mind having around, just for laughs, not sex, the sort of man who can describe death as nothing more unusual than going through Lincoln Tunnel.
Geneva Carr is particularly sympathetic as the pert Arlene, who loves her mother despite having to pose as her best friend, and David Aaron Baker endows Gavin with more dramatic complexity than is written into the role by Simon, proving himself an actor of unusual talent who can next be seen in Woody Allen's latest, as-yet-untitled film.