Never trust the dead man you live with, especially if you can’t be certain whether he’s the ghost of your dead ex-lover or just your mind making you think he’s the ghost of your dead ex-lover, who also happens to be a writer -with an unfinished novel that he’s bugging you to finish – and a washout paperback writer he intends to use as his ghost writer. All of that drama and a good bit of dark humor is what Spotlighters Theatre brings to the stage as they present Neil Simon’s Rose’s Dilemma. Directed by Hamptons, this rousing good time features the delusional Rose Steiner, the writer on the verge of bankruptcy, still living the high life in her Hamptons beach house with her mildly neurotic assistant, the ghost of her ex-lover, and a rough looking one-hit wonder writer; a fantastical comedy with real heart to warm you up in these cold winter months.
Scenic Designer Roy Hammond elegantly crafts the luxury of a decadent beach home in the Hamptons right before the audience’s eyes. From the inviting wicker lounge chairs to the pink and floral décor, Rose’s beach house screams ‘comfort’ from the moment you set eyes upon it. At the back of the set are two elaborate patio doors that lead out to the most stunning backdrop of a scenic beach, complete with dune sand, water and a horizon line. Combining this element of the set with Lighting Designer Fuzz Roark’s work against that painted perfect gives the illusion of sunrise, sunset, dusk, dawn, day, and night at the beach, reflected in stunning visuals.
Tying these aesthetically astounding elements together is Director Hammond’s sound design. The subtle wash of the waves against the shore echo throughout the theatre before the play begins, inviting the audience into the enchanting atmosphere. And every time the patio doors are opened you hear a crescendo of these waves echoing upon the beach, completing the overall experience of being thrust in the middle of life at Rose’s beach house.
Enhancing the perfect set is an incredibly talented cast of four. Shining brightly together upon the stage with the right levels of voracious energy, blended seamlessly with comic timing and heart-tugging emotions, these four actors play out a sensation show, keeping it organic and real while highlighting the moments of hilarity and heartfelt love. You couldn’t ask for better chemistry, each player working flawlessly with the others to create a symbiotic world in which everyone plays to their fullest potential.
Gavin (Steven Shriner) presents a chivalrous charm that is mild and polite, a quaint fit for the way he slides into the story. Shriner’s portrayal of the washed out writer feels natural, as if he simply exists without having to try. But he’s no stranger to sharp witted repartee when it comes to not-so-subtle flirtations with Arlene. Shriner brings a slightly unpolished edge to the character’s sense of courting and does the skeptic element of his character a good deal of justice with glum facial expressions and defeatist posture from time to time. He works the dialogue with ease, emphasizing frustration and comedy in exactly the right moments, always enhancing these articulated emotions with an appropriately matched facial expression.
Arlene (Brenda R. Crooks) is a simplistic character, slightly neurotic and just existing, until later in act two when her secrets are revealed. Without giving away major plot twists it can easily be said that Brenda bottles up her emotions keeping them in tight reserve until exactly the right moment. Their release is a tumultuous downpour of pent up frustrations that expel from deep within her, targeted directly at Rose with a thunderous force that just keeps erupting until her emotional breakdown. She’s a perfect match playing opposite her real life mother in this role that was practically made for her.
Rose (Joan Crooks) being the title role does indeed find herself with quite a dilemma. With a world of emotions wound up inside the character, Crooks gives a dynamic portrayal that keeps the audience on a roller coaster of laughs and tears, happiness and sorrow all throughout the production. A masterful talent is unleashed when she hits the lower notes of the character’s life — a particularly tear-jerking rendition of reading Walsh’s goodbye letter comes to mind — and when she’s on a comic roll, she’s on fire. Crooks is quick to let the character grow flustered, fitting with the text, and easily allows her physicality to become trapped in her mind’s romanticism, slumping into the chair with the nostalgic sighs of times long since gone. Her mastery of Simon’s text is proven in every scene and the way she physically expresses trying to communicate with her unseen partner is delightfully uproarious; a true artist at work in this production.
Then the ghost himself, Walsh (Denis L. Latkowski) becomes quite the man to watch, assuming you can see him. With his own fond sense of days gone by Latkowski creates quite the presence on the stage, being seen and heard only by Rose. His approach to conflict is intense, using the rich timbre of his voice to escalate the fighting betwixt him and Rose without having to raise his voice to evoke anger and frustration from his character. And he floats about the scene brilliantly; ever present but always unseen despite all the ruckus he makes. Latkowski shares a volatile chemistry with Crooks, his explosive points well tempered by his gentle verbal caresses and sweet strokes of warm memories that are quickly fading into the Lincoln Tunnel of death; a fine actor if ever there was one for the role.
So don’t listen to the dead spirits haunting your beach house, unless they’re telling you to catch a ride downtown to Spotlighters for this heart-warming comic gem.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.
Rose’s Dilemma plays through February 10, 2013 at The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre – 817 Saint Paul Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 752-1225,or purchase them online.