Star-Spangled Banter

Live Theatre Workshop provides a stiff breeze for a limp Neil Simon comedy.

Live Theatre Workshop is doing a very nice job with a very bad play: Neil Simon's The Star Spangled Girl.

Watching actors Jeremy Thompson, Valerie Feingold and Cliff Madison fret and cavort through Simon's superficial romantic comedy, you can't help wishing they were featured in something worthier of their talents. But Simon sells, and has for 40 years; he's the most commercially successful playwright in Broadway history. At his best, he packs his plays with memorable, character-driven wisecracks that can sometimes even be subtle. Yet even in a genuinely enjoyable work like Barefoot in the Park, Simon too often lets his characterizations go lax as he strains for a zany climax.

The three figures in Star Spangled Girl barely qualify as characters; they're merely types, spewing generic, cheesy one-liners about as funny as Velveeta. It's as if Simon placed the proverbial hundred chimps in front of typewriters and pieced the results together, except that a chimp would get more laughs just by scratching its armpit.

This is the first of two plays in a series Live Theatre Workshop is calling "Summer of Simon." Unfortunately, that title hisses and hums like the name Son of Sam, the serial killer who terrorized Simon's beloved New York City mainly during the summer of 1977. Driven by the howls of a neighbor's dog, the killer--whose real name was David Berkowitz--went around shooting random women and couples. Neil Simon has been taking potshots at couples for decades, driven by the howls of audiences, not to mention the thud of moneybags tossed into his vault. Tasteless as it may be to compare a play to a murderer, the non-lethal Star Spangled Girl strangely resembles Berkowitz, a hyperactive dork with a moronic smile.

The play supposedly takes place in San Francisco in 1966, in the apartment of two guys--Andy and Norman--putting out a politically radical and commercially failing journal. But there's no real sense that this is really San Francisco or 1966. The political movements and cultural fads we associate with the '60s didn't fall into place until about 1964, but by 1966 San Francisco radicals had already evolved into a species quite distinct from the old New York intellectuals on whom Simon's characters are based. Not only are Andy and Norman not hip, they aren't even hep.

The play's one half-hearted point, that dissent is essential in a free society, is even more important now than it was 35 years ago. But Simon sidesteps any real political debates, unlike Norman Lear a few years later in All in the Family. Lear knew how to make his audience laugh and squirm at the same time, ridiculing the bigotry that Americans were struggling to overcome. Simon, in contrast, seems afraid either to ridicule or buy into any specific political ideas that could offend somebody, which would mean bad box office.

Into Andy and Norman's murky pond of platitudes splashes a new neighbor, a young but old-fashioned god-and-country Southerner named Sophie Rauschmeyer. Simon's lack of involvement in his characters couldn't be more obvious; why saddle a Southerner with this Brooklynite name?

Norman becomes grotesquely fixated on Sophie; Sophie rebuffs him, but becomes obsessed with Andy, even though she hates his politics. All Andy wants is to get the next issue of his magazine out, dodge creditors and keep the landlady at bay. The situation is pure Insta-Comedy: Just add watery wisecracks.

A few good lines do cast some stray sparks, but most of Simon's jokes are duds; they have no connection to the play's time or place or characters, and sound like rejects from earlier, better plays.

What a waste of good actors and director Dana Armstrong. In the first act, Jeremy Thompson's dry, low-key delivery as Andy contrasts nicely with Cliff Madison's Norman, a panting, lovesick loon whose childlike nature makes you forget that this guy is a budding stalker. Both characters' desperation mounts through the play's second half, when they must contend with Sophie's countrified high dudgeon. Valerie Feingold, in her Tucson swan song, is a wonderful Sophie; just watch the little fireworks display of emotion that bursts across her face after an unexpected kiss.

If Live Theatre Workshop must do Star Spangled Girl, at least the company is doing it well, and people who don't demand too much from Neil Simon should find this a pleasant summer diversion. After all, Simon has a large and forgiving audience; run this Star Spangled Girl up a flagpole, and lots of people are bound to salute.