Review: ‘I Ought to Be in Pictures’ at Peter’s Alley Theatre Productions

Is it nature or nurture? Is it innate personality or fearless optimism? Is the ability to see the glass half full, the willingness to take a chance, the inclination to ask or speak your mind without worrisome embarrassment; is that something we all possess at birth? If we are born with a fierce sense of possibility, for some does it gradually fray, bruise over time or slip away into non-commitment and convenient forgetfulness? These questions came to mind during Peter’s Alley Theatre Productions I Ought to Be in Pictures by awarding winning playwright Neil Simon, directed by Aly B. Ettman. Originally produced for Broadway in 1980, the story puts whole the missing pieces in a father-daughter relationship.

Bruce Rauscher (Herb), Jenna Murphy (Libby), and Tanya Bannett (Steffy). Photo by David Jung.

Herb Tucker (Bruce Rauscher) left his family sixteen years ago, including daughter Libby (Jenna Murphy). Herb moved across the country to West Hollywood and is going about the business of writing; but with writer’s block. In a spare relationship with girlfriend Steffy (Tanya Bannett) consisting of measured commitment, Herb pushes back, while Steffy gently encourages the next word. Tanya Bannett, plays Steffy with soft inflection, and gentle resolve. Steffy remains reliable and supportive, the one not asking much in return. Self-sacrifice may be the natural order in this male/female coupling, but at some point Herb is going to have to take on some heavy lifting.

Big surprise when daughter Libby, coming all the way from Brooklyn, shows up full of optimism, determination, and, after only a brief stint in one high school production, the goal of becoming an actress. Jenna Murphy, as Libby, captures the spirit of possibility perfectly. In a sparse setting, she brings a heartiness that is witty and truthful, bridging over boundaries.

Boundaries are the stark lines in the stripped down, skeletal Scenic Design, by Dan Remmers, with doorways of pale blond pine and triangle-shaped white A frames overhead. Entrances and exits coolly emerge or dissolve, and though a tree partially hints at the warmth of California sun, the unadorned drapery does little to transport. Lighting Designer Peter Caress keeps the cool chemistry, especially before intermission, as the awkwardness and distance between father and daughter are negotiated.

In Act II, we see small changes that signify a shifting balance. After two weeks, Libby has added artwork to the wall, an area rug under the desk, crumpled papers are no longer present, and telephone cord is untwined. At long last change has taken hold, and Herb is now worrying about Libby’s late-night job. This is a big change for a guy, who two weeks earlier, didn’t recall his own daughter’s birthday. Director Aly B. Ettman makes choices that connect the two, merging their personal space into one, taking the actors away from sharp profiles of direct conversations.

Jenna Murphy (Libby) and Bruce Rauscher as (Herb). Photo by David Jung.

Bruce Rauscher as Herb becomes bolder, somehow more substantial, even though he has yet to resolve loose ends. Sound Design by David Jung keeps up a sparse ambience, briefly noticeable in the sound of Libby’s car approaching late at night. Ambient sound was absent mostly, and it could have aided. Actors tunneled and focused the dialogue toward one another, at times disregarding the narrow expanse of the small black box theatre.

This is a play that shows its age at times. Do my sympathies lie with a man with unresolved guilt for abandoning his family? Is it all about Herb taking the world by the tale with his stories? What about that partnership he harbors with Steffy? When will Steffy get a pat on the back or be thrown a few crumbs? Is she going to stay in that same place forever accepting the small scraps? These are questions this production can’t answer, but they are good ones that this production provided. As we sit back and think through, there is much to be applauded in this father/daughter reunion, but much has changed.

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

I Ought to Be in Pictures plays through May 21, 2017, at Peter’s Alley Theatre Productions  performing at Theatre on the Run – 3700 South Four Mile Run Drive, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, purchase them online.