Rose and Walsh
Also see Sharon's review of Laughing Wild
Neil Simon's new play, Rose and Walsh, very nearly apologizes for itself. Rose, the 64-year-old writer at the play's center, is not the writer she used to be. Legally blind and unable to concentrate, she has frequent bouts of writer's block. Walsh, her lover, similarly acknowledges that his last book, written when he was 60, is not up to his previous standards. That septuagenarian playwright Simon would write a play about older writers no longer being on top of their craft is either a supreme act of denial or a sad admission of the truth.
To be fair, this world premiere play is still a work in progress; Simon certainly may rewrite it into a script worthy of his name. But, in its current state, the play would be wholly undeserving of attention were it not for Simon's reputation.
The big problem is the plot, which has no clear idea where it is going or how it is getting there. The play opens with Rose yelling for Walsh from inside her beach house (a lovely set by John Arnone). It is soon revealed that Rose and Walsh were lovers (the characters apparently inspired by Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett), but Walsh is now deceased. This is but a small impediment to their continued relationship, as Walsh has remained in Rose's life as a ghost only she can see and hear. The initial plot complication arises when Walsh informs Rose that in two weeks, he will stop visiting her. The idea of a woman having two final weeks to say goodbye to her dead lover, from her begging him to stay to her ultimate acceptance of his departure, is a reasonable premise for a play. That is not this play. The plot changes when Walsh shows Rose his last, unfinished book and requests that she finish and publish it. The idea of a writer collaborating with her deceased lover in order to finish his final work before he must leave forever is also a reasonable premise for a play. That is not this play either. Rose immediately declines because she can never duplicate Walsh's style. Walsh, for all of his ghostly talents, is apparently unable to simply dictate the remainder of his book to Rose. They need another author if the book is to be completed.
Rose and Walsh then decide to hire Clancy, a young mystery writer who might be capable of duplicating Walsh's hard-boiled detective style. The idea of two former lovers, one of them deceased, collaborating with a third, unknown, writer is another reasonable premise for a play. For the remainder of the first act, that is, in fact, the play Simon has written. Yet Simon has failed to mine the plot for all of its dramatic and comedic possibilities. Instead, the play contents itself with some sitcom-level humor of the sort where Rose invites Walsh to bed, but Clancy, seeing no one else in the room, mistakenly thinks she is speaking to him.
By the second act, even this plot is gone. Whether Rose, Walsh and Clancy are going to complete Walsh's novel is resolved in a throwaway line, and the plot is off and running in a different direction entirely. Rose has a young assistant, Arlene, who falls in love with Clancy for no real reason except the two are the only young people in the play. Rose has a secret which she has hidden from everyone, including Walsh. When her secret is revealed (to Clancy, of all people), it leads the play into an examination of Rose's life and whether she made the right choices in sacrificing for her art.
None of the cast members gives a very memorable performance, but the fault is not necessarily theirs. Len Cariou is likeable as Walsh. He's playful, enthusiastic, and completely believable when he calls Rose "Kid." But he is not quite charismatic enough to live up to the image the script paints of him - he is apparently so attractive that Arlene falls for him just by hearing Rose's interactions with his ghost, and that just doesn't appear on stage. Jane Alexander's Rose also doesn't quite match the text; she is supposed to be legally blind without her glasses, but she navigates her living room with confidence, and her eyes seem to focus clearly. She also alternates between self-assuredness and pitiful neediness, which isn't entirely plausible. Similar problems plague Marin Hinkle's Arlene and David Aaron Baker's Clancy. Their initial attraction and flirtation come out of nowhere - perhaps Clancy is supposed to remind Arlene of Walsh, but he doesn't have that kind of charm.
There are definitely moments where Simon's old self shines through. When Rose says, "Never judge a woman by what she wears; it's what she buys that counts," it's clear that a sharp wit was behind this play. But several times, a good line ends up getting overwritten. Rose doesn't just tell Walsh that he is a caricature of himself at Sardi's, she must add that it fell off the wall ten years ago. The addition does nothing to the image, and it also messes up the pace for Walsh's snappy comeback. Ultimately, the biggest problem with the characters of Rose and Walsh is that their lines focus too much on talking about how brilliant and charming they are and too little on actually being brilliant and charming.
As a study of a writer past her prime, coming to terms with her loss of ability and determining whether her life's choices were the correct ones, Rose and Walsh serves as an interesting tool for amateur psychoanalysis of Neil Simon. But treated simply as a play on its own terms, it is clearly a lesser example of his work.
Rose and Walsh runs at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood through March 9, 2003. For tickets, call (310) 208-5454. www.geffenplayhouse.com
The Geffen Playhouse presents Rose and Walsh, by Neil Simon. Gilbert Cates, Producing Director; Randall Arney, Artistic Director; Stephen Eich, Managing Director. Scenery by John Arnone; Costumes by Elizabeth Hope Clancy; Lighting by Stephen Strawbridge; Sound by Jon Gottlieb; Casting by Jay Binder; Production Stage Manager Elsbeth M. Collins; Associate Producer Elaine Joyce; Dramaturg Amy Levinson Millan; Directed by David Esbjornson.
Photo by Ken Howard