I OUGHT TO BE IN PICTURES -- At the National Theater through May 31.
Time: The Present.
Place: West Hollywood, CA.
So goes the terse synopsis of scenes for the latest Neil Simon play in town, "I Ought to Be in Pictures."
And so it is in Neil Simon plays, which are period pieces dealing in the currency of today's humor stereotypes, with layers of one-liners and a last act booby-trapped with gags set up in earlier scenes.
In where else but California, we have the divorced daddy, who is a struggling screen-writer whose makeup artist/woman friend stays over when she doesn't have to be with her two kids.
The dad hasn't seen his little girl in 16 years, so the 19-year-old who shows up at his door in shorts and hiking boots is briefly mistaken for the substitute cleaning lady.
Having taken a bus from Brooklyn to Denver and hitchhiked the rest of the way, shw bemoans the fact that "If you're not gorgeous, you hike more than you hitch."
It's about here that one begins to really notice the pudgy urchin who plays Libby. Alexa Kenin is 19 in real life, and appears to be wonderfully on the brink.
She can be slightly undignified, a smartass biting her nails and screaming "You owe me!" when trying to persuade her father to help her get into "pictures."
But sometimes she shrinks into a bewildered little girl, and sometimes the woman comes through, crying bittersweet tears of growing up. Kenin puts out real tears, to which the sniffles in the audience attest.
Simon used restraint in depicting the father, Herb (played by Bill Macy, who was the television husband of "Maude"), as just slightly dissolute, and irascible only upon waking. Underneath he is kind, and the restraint pays off in believability when Herb eases his daughter's growing pains.
These actors can pull laughs out of the most ordinary lines, with a look or a gesture. Is her brother any good at Ping-Pong -- the kid's only sport -- the father asks? Libby pauses. Chomps on a Saltine thoughtfully: "He beat Grandma once."
A sad sack, slightly behind the times, stuck on baseball, Herb had trouble getting his writing off the ground but growns a helluvan orange tree and a lemon tree. His girlfriend (Patricia Harty) thinks his gardening symbolic. Herb grits his teeth as he says, "Oh Jeez, don't give me that. I give up two kids so I grow two trees?" Parenthetically, one wonders what the lively lady sees in him. If not old in years, Macy plays him old in spirit.
But the interplay of father and daughter is touching. Herb tries to answer her questions about sex: "Is it different for the man than it is for the girl?" "Yes," Herb answers unequivocally. Pauses. Looks into middle distance: "Am I wrong?" She's been thinking about it and wants to know how far to go. "I didn't want to be one of those girls that they call easy," Libby says. "But I didn't want to be imposible , either."
Neil Simon is Neil Simon -- predictably. It's left to an unpredictable teenager to steal the show.