I OUGHT TO BE IN PICTURES by Neil Simon; directed by Herbert Ross and re-staged by Frank Marino; scenery by David Jenkins; costumes by Nancy Potts; lighting by Tharon Musser; with Bill Macy, Alexa Kenin and Patricia Harty. At the National Theatre through May 31.
On the evidence of the play that opened at the National Theatre last night, Neil Simon should go right on writing about parents and children. Libby Tucker, the 19-year-old heroine of "I Ought to Be in Pictures," is one of the most engaging characters in the Simon canon.Here's a girl who snags a job parking cars at an elite Hollywood party and seizes the opportunity to leave a card on the bigwigs' windshields advertising herself as a "New York-trained actress/No part is too big or too small."
Here, also, is a girl prone to apologizing for not being "gorgeous," and for not being taller. "This is it, I don't get any bigger!" she bursts out at one defensive moment. (Whatever she says, by the way, is said in a deep Brooklyn accent -- including the recitation from Emily Dickinson she hopes to use as an audition piece.)
"I Ought to Be in Pictures" is about Libby's reunion with her father, a down-on-his-luck screenwriter who walked out on his family 16 years ago. Without warning, Libby has absconded from Brooklyn and appeared on Pop's Hollywood doorstep. She has acting ambitions, too. She figures her old man will help her get started in the movies, but he's barely in a position to help himself -- although, naturally, this isn't easy to admit to a daughter, even a newfound one.
The getting-reacquainted process between these two involves a surprisingly modest number of insult jokes, food jokes, east-coast-west-coast jokes and other Simon standards. It adds up to one of the more interesting and credible love affairs in all his plays. As Libby, what's more, Alexa Kenin gives a funny, feisty but genuinely affecting performance. And as Herb, her father, Bill Macy displays a low-key charm that, finally, yanks him (and the audience) free of the unavoidable memory of the put-upon character he used to play on the TV show "Maude."
But having said that much, I must ungraciously add that Macy is too old and too, well, laid-back for this role. "I Ought to Be in Pictures" should be the story of a man ready to throw in the towel and accept a life of small commitments and small rewards. Macy comes across as someone whose choices have already been made, and our attention and sympathy decrease proportionately. (Macy also seems a little lacking in pizzazz for someone who supposedly commands the affection of Patricia Harty, giving a fine performance as his part-time girl friend.)
On Broadway -- to continue being ungracious -- the part was played by Ron Liebman, whose energy, sparkle and sex appeal waged unspoken battle all the while with the slovenliness of his habits and surroundings. The play needs that tension -- that sense of not-quite-spent youth and not-quite exhausted potential.Otherwise, it is a likable but lethargic piece of work.
This is the Simon play that had its unorthodox beginnings at Los Angeles's Mark Taper Forum, with Tony Curtis (another implausible choice) in the lead. As a nonprofit theater, the Mark Taper was criticized for launching a clearly commercial production -- which did, indeed, move to Broadway with dispatch. The theater's artistic director defended the project, nowever, with the argument that a playwright whose full talents had not been realized in the commercial theater was suing this work to stretch himself as a writer. The claim seems reasonable. In "I Ought to Be in Pictures," Simon takes an earnest -- but, fear not, still funny -- look at the universal temptation to cut our losses, emotionally and intellectually, by ignoring and belittling the opportunities that come our way.
"Leaving cards on windshields is not how you become an actress!" Herb tells Libby condescendingly. She admits it probably won't do anything for her career, but at least her name is stuck under an important windshield wiper, she says. Whose windshield wiper is his name stuck under?