‘Proposals’ at Vienna Theatre Company: ‘Wrestling with Neil Simon in the 21st Century’ by Suzanne Maloney

Barefoot in the Park seemed charming and funny to me in 1971 when I worked as assistant director on a local production. Oh that Cory Bratter. She was so funny!  And Paul’s mother in that scene with the oouzo? Giggle fest. I read it again within the past year when looking for a light comic entry for our season. Hmmm…Velasco seemed just annoying. And everybody needs to STOP ARGUING!

Director Suzanne Maloney.

I remember when I performed in the female version of The Odd Couple years ago being frustrated as I tried to find some dimension to Olive, some logical reason to tie up all those loose ends at the end of the play. I think now that was not so much a criticism of Simon’s 1960’s writing as a comment on my 1990’s approach to the character. As I recall, my fellow actor and I just threw up our hands and played it for laughs as the director requested.

Poster-Whisperly-HiResSince then I have been wary of Simon’s work but this season we chose Proposals so Neil and I were going to take the journey together. It has been interesting for a director that loves character-driven pieces. We did table work as a cast, talking through each character and each beat. We found some challenges in some dead ends for a couple of the arcs. We found some lines that couldn’t track back or forward in the action. But we continue to approach it as making these characters real, these situations possible. We let the humor bubble to the top instead of becoming the driving force.

I read an interesting article recently in Commentary’s October 2012 issue by Terry Teachout called “Taking a Second Look at Neil Simon.” Teachout was proposing that we play each scene “for truth, not laughter… [the characters] carried themselves not like sitcom characters but human beings, harried and wearied by the unrelenting responsibilities of real life, and whenever they stopped trying to be funny and told you what they felt; you felt it with them.”

We will see if this approach works. Having a cast willing to just tell the story and not play to the punch line has been a gift. Time will tell if the storytelling satisfies our modern sensibilities but I have come to care for these characters and I think the audience will too. 

Proposals by Neil Simon will be presented by the Vienna Theatre Company,  opening January 25 and running three weekends with Frriday and Saturday nights at 8:00pm and Sunday matinees  1/27 and 2/3 at 2:00 pm. Performances are at the Vienna Community Center -120 Cherry Street, in Vienna, VA. Tickets can be purchased at the Community Center before the performance you wish to attend with cash or checks OR may be reserved in advance by sending an email to vtcshows@yahoo.com at least 2 hours before showtime. Visit VTC’s website at www.viennatheatrecompany.org for more information.

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