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Proposals Isn't the Best of Neil Simon, But There's a Pleasant "Memory Play" Inside

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The setup:

Ex-wives, ex-boyfriends, ex-husbands -- everyone, it seems, who knows the Hines family -- shows up at their vacation home in the Poconos one memorable weekend. Neil Simon goes soft and wispy in this uneven comedy from Country Playhouse.

The execution:

During his latter career, funnyman Neil Simon (The Odd Couple, Barefoot in the Park, The Sunshine Boys) has gone serious. Now, serious for Simon can often be pretty funny for anyone else, but there's been a definite shift. This play from 1997 bombed quickly on Broadway, as critics prophesied his impending obituary. While he hasn't bounced back with the vigor of earlier smash hits, Simon hasn't been counted out yet.

This play is gentle and warm, like a late August breeze ruffling the leaves in the foothills of Pennsylvania, and Simon channels the whimsy of Thornton Wilder as his story unfolds. He throws in fairytale, never-ending coincidences, paper-thin characters and an autumnal tone that grates against his wisecracker wit. It's said that all clowns really want to play Hamlet, so why should it be any different for comedy writers?

The Hines family, dad Burt and daughter Josie (Marq Del Monte and Katie Basch), wrap up their annual vacation at their cabin in the woods, but not before Burt suffers another heart attack, Josie stops her engagement to snobby Ken (Brian Heaton) and then restarts with prior flame Ray (Sam Martinez), and Burt's ex Annie (Jan E. Potts) arrives with concern over Burt's health and to make amends with Josie, who has abandonment issues. Meanwhile, family caretaker Clemma (Alethea Bailey) expects her ex Lewis (Dave Osbie Shepard) to show up any minute after walking out on her seven years ago. Miami mafia honcho Vinnie (Mike McDermott), sputtering malapropisms, blows into town unannounced to see Josie; and then there's Ray's dim tree-hugger girlfriend Samii (Amesti Reioux), who's there to help the playwright with broad comic relief.

On its face, this is classic farce material, with characters dropping in and out of scenes, all ready with quips and one-liners. But Simon wants something darker and more serious under the sparkly surface, so he lets Clemma narrate the proceedings from the grave, seeing the play in her memory. It's this layer that doesn't work well, certainly not when placed against the comedy bits. Simon wants it both ways, but this uneasy balance between Borscht Belt shtick and pseudo-pseudo-Chekhov teeters precariously. It's Simon on autopilot -- which is nothing if not professional comedy writing -- but there's no depth to his people.

The biggest surprise was the last-minute replacement for actress B. Renda, as Clemma, by Bailey, who literally stepped in for ailing Renda hours before curtain. She read her part holding the script and supplied all the gentle heart and soul that Simon misplaced among all the jokes. Although the rhythm was stalled at times, Bailey overcame the bumpy blocking by her cozy characterization with deeply held sentiment. She made Clemma come alive and pulled the disjointed play together. You could hear the audience breathe easier each time she entered. It was a trooper's performance, and she brought up the level of everyone else.

The physical production is somewhat fly-by-night, with large swathes of front light that don't conjure moonlit evenings or dappled afternoons so much as a day at the gym. A bit more atmosphere would only help.

The verdict:

This fuzzy comedy isn't the best of Simon, but if you disregard the unbelievable coincidences and vaudeville characters that Simon can toss off in his sleep, there's a pleasant "memory play" hidden inside. Bailey finds it. That's the magic of theater.

Simon's bittersweet comedy plays through March 10 at Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury. Purchase tickets online at www.countryplayhouse.org or call 713-467-4497.

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