In a program note on his production of Neil Simon's The Gingerbread Lady, Renaissance Theatre Co. producing-artistic director George Flint declares that theater critics disparage the playwright as a commercial hack and a writer of one-line gags.
"... If that were all there was to Neil Simon's plays," the statement continues, "they would not have achieved the enormous popularity they have enjoyed."
Well, hang on a minute. McDonald's sells exactly 1.38 gajillion Quarter-Pounders a second all over the solar system, presumably because the purchasers have neither the time nor the money for steak tartar. Artist Thomas Kinkade wins trillions of awards for his cookie-cutter paintings, and five'll getcha ten: none of his work adorns the walls of legitimate collectors.
As Flint confuses popularity with taste, Simon substitutes character sketches for character development. The latter's made a living at it since his days in early TV, when he was actually a gag writer for quipsters such as Phil Silvers and Sid Caesar.
Marvin Neil Simon couldn't paint a character frontally if he had a spray can with an automatic nozzle. And 1970's The Gingerbread Lady, currently running at Cygnet Theatre, is a solid case in point.
The players' disparateness keeps the spectacle moving through the New York apartment of the leathery Evy Meara (Sandra Ellis-Troy), after her stay at a sanatorium for alcohol-related dementia. She'll inevitably backslide, piquing the concerns of her friends and her daughter Polly (an excellent Amanda Sitton). Aging beauty queen Toby (Jill Drexler) and gay actor Jimmy (Jim Strait) round out the mix; the group's foibles are no match for their faith in one another, however shaky.
Except for that of a terrible Landon Vaughn as interloper Lou, the acting is fairly interesting. Director Flint has a talent for infusion and an eye for casting to type, as he evinced in last year's A View from the Bridge. Beyond that, there is absolutely nothing special about this story, except the author's name. Add Simon's routinely tardy exposition, syntactically dry asides, unfinished subtext and first-draft one-liners, and this show reeks of theater fit for the parlor, not the stage.
Simon's supporters always cite the fact that he's the only living American playwright to have a theater named after him. That invariably conjures thoughts about the place's plumbing-accordingly, one San Diego critic (wink) eagerly echoes the sentiments of his more conspicuous colleagues.
When it comes to Neil's work, let's hope that that theater's bathrooms are up to code. ©
This review is based on the performance of March 21. The Gingerbread Lady runs through April 25 at the Cygnet Theatre. $22-$26. 619-337-1525.
This piano is in tune
Meanwhile, the Old Globe Theatre has fashioned a real play by a real author who weighs in on political oppression and the very human price it extracts. Two Sisters and a Piano features sisters Sofia and Maria Celia Obispo (Gloria Garayua and Socorro Santiago), under house arrest in Havana as the 1991 Pan American Games have begun. The Soviet Union collapses even as the host nation wins the majority of the medals-that irony is a backdrop for the sisters' hopes and fears in what they perceive will become a new Cuba.
Although they're probably on opposite sides of the political fence, playwright Nilo Cruz exhibits the same feel for the disenfranchised as America's late Clifford Odets-murky themes of government and unionism versus the common man during the Great Depression. Cruz deftly weaves a sympathetic militiaman (Philip Hernandez) and a giddy piano tuner (Jesse Ontiveros) into the sisters' lives. The result is director Karen Carpenter's lean, compelling slice of romantic, political intrigue and all that implies.
Two Sisters plays through April 11 at the Cassius Carter Centre Stage, at the Globe Theatres in Balboa Park.