I Ought To Be in Pictures/by Neil Simon/directed by Gregg W. Brevoort/Falcon Theatre/through November 11
Upon its premiere at the Mark Taper Forum in 1979, I Ought To Be in Pictures was clearly Neil Simon in a new light. There were less laugh-out-loud one-liners and more meaningful dialogue dealing with tattered relationships in a realistic, true-to-life manner. Mind you, he had not yet reached the level of sophistication of the Brighton Beach trilogy and Lost in Yonkers, but it was definitely a step in that direction, employing autobiographical as opposed to fictional elements as plot. Herb Tucker is... Neil Simon. In a rarely produced revival, I Ought To Be in Pictures resurfaces at the Falcon Theatre with skilled direction and a genuinely wonderful cast through November 11.
Herb Tucker (Robert Wuhl) is a moderately successful Hollywood writer suffering from writer's block when his daughter Libby (Genevieve Joy) pays him an unexpected visit. She wants to be an actress, or so she claims. It gradually becomes obvious that what she really wants is to find out why he left her mother, her and her brother 16 years before. He just walked out of their lives with no explanation and never kept in touch. "You owe me!" Libby insists.When Tucker explains to Libby why he left, it is here that Simon writes a beautifully crafted monologue of endearing proportions. It is never easy to tell the truth, and Tucker bares his soul as he describes his loss of love for his wife. Now if he could only write it down, he might have a juicy best-selling screenplay. On hand there's a loyal girlfriend Steffy (Kelly Hare) who hangs in despite Herb's lack of commitment. It becomes Libby's endeavor not only to reconcile him to his past mistakes but also to open him up to accepting new responsibilities, which includes owning up to his love for Steffy. Libby is no angel or miracle worker, though; she gets by on chutzpah. But at least she tries, which is more than can be said of Herb, who for many years has been neglecting both career and relationships.
Under Gregg W. Brevoort's evenly paced direction, the three actors give heartwarming performances. Joy, like her name implies, is a ray of sunshine. The role was originally played by Dinah Manoff, who portrayed Libby as a typically brash Brooklyn Jewish girl. Joy makes Libby completely her own, deftly exposing the intense vulnerability that lies beneath a tough veneer of self-confidence. Wuhl brings a grounded honesty to Herb, allowing him to adjust slowly but surely. What starts out as a confused "get out of my life" finally becomes a securely grasped "How could I have possibly lived without you the last 16 years?" His scene on the phone with son Robbie is deeply moving, a truly heartfelt experience. Keep a handkerchief handy! Hare adds beauty, warmth and a glowing wifely/motherly support to Steffy's relationships with Herb and Libby.
Jeffrey McLaughlin's set design is definitely LA, a cramped bungalow with a full window view of an orange and a lemon tree in the backyard.
What ultimately makes the piece work effectively is Simon's ability to express tenderness and a newfound sense of fatherhood through Herb Tucker, as most gently portrayed by Robert Wuhl. If you want to be moved to tears without the sentimentality, go see I Ought To Be in Pictures! It still holds up after 33 years and, as Neil Simon in transition, is an assured theatrical treat.
On an up note: I learned after the show on opening night that Robert Wuhl went on terribly ill. From the bravura performance he gave, one would never have guessed. It is always gratifying to witness first hand the positive effects of the old adage the show must go on.