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A CurtainUp Review
Rose's Dilemma

Sometimes it's important for a woman my age to fall apart.
---Rose Steiner, having quite literally abandoned her decidedly "put-together" look for an old robe and disheveled coiffure.
 John Cullum  and Patricia Hodges
John Cullum and Patricia Hodges (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Lillian Hellman achieved legendary status as a playwright, memoirist, and co-star of a well-documented real life love story with mystery novel innovator Dashiell Hammett. Joan Mellen's superb dual biography of Hellman and Hammet had a successful life in hard covers and remains in print in paperback. Yet, colorful and accomplished as Hellman was, and despite fairly regular revivals of her dramas (mostly regionally, though Lincoln Center revived The Little Foxes not too long ago), plays in which she figures as a major character have not fared especially well.

Peter Feibleman's Cakewalk, based on his own relationship with Hellman, didn't last very long even with the popular Linda Lavin in the lead. Nora Ephron's first stage venture, Imaginary Friends, about Hellman's much publicized feud with Mary McCarthy, made it to Broadway (after a San Diego premiere) but, even with Swoozie Kurtz as Hellman and Cherry Jones as McCarthy, it didn't hang around for very long.

If the three strikes and you're out rule applies to fictionalized Hellman plays, Neil Simon's Rose's Dilemma means that we should now have seen the last of these stage vehicles whether closely or loosely modeled on the late writer. The prolific and much loved Simon, who has given us enough comedies that were touching as well as funny to have a Broadway theater named after him, has now fallen into several traps.

Trap # 1. Having created memorable characters based on his own experiences, not to mention Oscar and Felix who transformed "odd couple" into an every day expression, he's now hampered himself by challenging what we might call the failed Hellman drama syndrome. The Hellman connection is clear even though the lily (Hellman's nickname) is called a rose. The name change exacerbates the trap since having a writer named Rose Steiner evokes comparisons to Ruth Steiner, the older writer at the center of Donald Margulies' much better play, Collected Stories (three productions of which were favorably reviewed by CurtainUp).

Trap #2. To make matters worse, Simon has turned Rose's long time lover, the Dashiell Hammett-like Walsh McLaren, into a ghost. This again invites comparisons, this time to writers like James M. Barrie and Noel Coward who were more adept at fantasy.

Trap #3. The fantasy element and the use of celebrity characters may seem like an established writer's brave venture into new territory. Alas, this turns out to be a false promise since nothing in Rose's Dilemma comes off as fresh and new. While Rose and Walsh (which was the title when this premiered in Los Angeles) do have many of Hellman and Hammett's characteristics, the ghost angle that has Rose hold on to the memory of her great love through imaginary conversations that even include nightly sex, tend to get tiresome. It is also a replay of a grief-stricken lover unable to let go of the past -- in short, a third chapter of Chapter Two in which the lead character was a widower and stand-in for the playwright.

All these inherent problems aren't helped by the usually inventive playwright's additional plot developments. Arlene, young writer who is spending the summer with Rose in her East Hampton home, questions the expense of the abundantly evident flowers. This establishes the plot-driving dilemma: Rose is apparently suffering from a financially damaging writer's block. To heighten the drama, Arlene has a long-standing personal connection to Rose and becomes romantically entangled with a Hammet-like young writer (conveniently living in nearby Quogue) whom the ghost (or rather Rose) calls upon to complete an unfinished Hammet novel and thus resolve the financial situation. In act two, the flowers have been replaced by less costly plants, and Rose's chic, put together persona has been replaced by distraught dishevelment. You see, Rose has given up the ghost in more ways than one -- without the ghost as a vivid presence in her life, she now slouches around, her inability to let go without giving up on life most evident in her wearing the robe formerly worn by Walsh. The conceit of the ghostly Walsh is taken a step further since it now incorporates the playwright's concern with accepting his own mortality as well as that of his beloved first wife.

While any Neil Simon play is sure to have some laughs, none of his recent Broadway productions have sparked enough laughter to drown out some of the dialogue. In Rose's Dilemma there's no danger of missing anything since the laughs come at greater intervals than ever before.

To exacerbate the hard to sustain premise of this fact based fantasy, Mary Tyler Moore walked out after an altercation with the playwright, presumably because she forgot her lines. Could Ms. Moore have wrested more humor from the thankless title role? I doubt it. Patricia Hodges certainly has the lines down pat, but the dilemma has nothing to do with remembering the lines, but making them memorable which makes this more Simon's than Steiner's dilemma.

John Cullum is dapper and likeable even as a ghost. Geneva Carr is excellent in the too predictable role of Arlene. David Aaron Baker has a disarming John Garfield-like charm as the dissipated young writer from Quogue (a village which is the too often repeated butt of the surprisingly few funny jokes). He is also the only cast member who appeared in the original California production. Apropos of this, our California critic, who is a self-admitted sucker for fantasies, was intrigued enough by Mr. Simon's daring to venture in this direction to give Rose and Walsh a better review than many of her colleagues. It should also be mentioned that the playwright isn't nicknamed "Doc" for nothing, so perhaps what we are seeing now is not stronger and better, but weaker and over medicated.

Typical for Manhattan Theatre Club, this is a handsomely staged production, well-directed by MTC's artistic director Lynne Meadow. Thomas Lynch's seaside home is airy and furnished in the best of taste, with the ocean view subtly lit by Pat Collins. The costumes by William Ivey Long are suitable, though a very early morning scene (if I recall correctly, 6 am) has Arlene in high heels and an outfit that looks as if she's off to work and Hodges joining her for coffee in a black cocktail dress complete with pearl necklace and earrings.

In any event, as Mexican Standoff the Walsh McLaren play needs a finishing chapter to resolve Rose Steiner's financial dilemma, so Rose's Dilemma needs something to give it the fantastical flair it now lacks.

Imaginary Friends
Hellman and Hammet, the biography by Joan Mellen
TheLittle Foxes reviewed at Lincoln Center and in London
Neil Simon's memoirs: Rewrites and The Play Goes On

Written by Neil Simon
Directed by Lynne Meadow
Cast: David Aaron Baker, Geneva Carr, John Cullum, Patricia Hodges.
Set Design: Thomas Lynch
Costume Design: William Ivey Long
Lighting Design: Pat Collins
Sound Design: Bruce Ellman
Wigs: Paul Huntley
Running time: 2 hours, including one 15-minute intermission
Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center's Stage I, 131 West 55th Street, 212/ 581-1212.
Tickets are $60 --$25 student tickets on sale for all performances based on availability on the day of the performance, up to one hour before showtime
From 11/20/03 to 2/01/04; opening 12/18/03. Tuesday through Saturday at 8:00 PM, with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 PM, and Sunday evening performances at 7:00 PM.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on December 20th performance
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