Manhattan Theatre Club presents Losing Louie by Simon Mendes da Costa. Directed by Jerry Zaks. Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by William Ivey Long. Lighting design by Paul Gallo. Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. Cast: Matthew Arkin, Scott Cohen, Rebecca Creskoff, Patricia Kalember, Mark Linn-Baker, Michele Pawk, Jama Williamson.
The funniest Neil Simon play in 15 years opened last night in a Manhattan Theatre Club production at the Biltmore. It's most notable not for proving that the old guy still has it in him, but for not being the work of Simon at all.
With just one set (an elegantly middle-class bedroom, the typically fine work of John Lee Beatty), an assortment of crazy characters, and an ominous, deceptively dark storyline with a silver-hearted lining, this play feels like Simon through and through. It is, however, the work of a different Simon: Simon Mendes da Costa, who is making his notable New York playwriting debut with the nicely entertaining Losing Louie.
The play, though, doesn't exactly announce the arrival of an exciting new voice to these shores: Da Costa doing Simon isn't the same as Simon doing Simon. (Then again, Simon hardly does Simon anymore.) But looking back just over the past year, Losing Louie makes a far stronger case for the Simon comedy as a cure for the contemporary blues than did last season's anemic Broadway revival of Barefoot in the Park.
Da Costa's ability to find humor and pathos in the saddest of life experiences feels similar to Simon's, if not yet fully developed, though da Costa does diverge drastically in terms of his destination: a meditation on masculinity. Rather than setting out to rout every imaginable laugh and tear from this story about a dead father (the titular Louie) and the feuding family he leaves behind, da Costa sees the real story in how men cope with life, death, sex, and everything in between. It's neither a broad nor an original topic, but da Costa and director Jerry Zaks do surprisingly well by it, as they're exploring a wide range of character possibilities with a great set of actors to snugly fit into them.
The vaguely sissified older brother, Tony, is played to the neurotic utmost by Mark-Linn Baker; the more overtly masculine, adopted brother, Reggie, is sculpted by straight arrow Matthew Arkin, who contrasts wonderfully with Linn-Baker, sounding and behaving as if he were Tony's full-blood brother. Their wives, Sheila (Michele Pawk) for Tony and Elizabeth (Patricia Kalember) for Reggie, are equally potent: Kalember's Elizabeth is a businesslike, feminine success story, while Pawk's Sheila is almost satirically mannish, with a rumbly voice and wide, flat-footed stance that would halt most football players in their tracks.
All this makes you constantly aware that you're as unsure of the brothers' self-identities as they are: Issues such as ethnicity (which is more Jewish?) and parental abilities (Reggie and Elizabeth have raised twin overachievers; Sheila and Tony have one developmentally challenged daughter) arise time and time again. But, in all but one case, answers aren't forthcoming: These people long ago accepted their circumstances; the time for most questions has passed. The exception is Reggie, who - despite being an accomplished lawyer - is in his soul a frightened, abandoned boy who might never know his birth parents.
It's in unpeeling the parched layers of Reggie's lineage that the play finds its true plot: Yes, the couples arrive at the late Louie's house for the service and burial, and much of their share of the play follows these events, in a fractiously farcical manner. But it's how Tony and Reggie got where they are, and how that's tangled in the relationship of Tony's father and mother 40 years earlier (Scott Cohen plays the young Louie, Rebecca Creskoff is his wife Bobbie), that gives the play what emotional heft it has.
Even so, it's clear from the opening scene, in which Louie cavorts on a bed with his wife's best friend, Bella (Jama Williamson), how the story will likely unfold, and the characters' reactions and revelations are well in keeping with those early indicators. Da Costa defuses some predictability with intercuts between present and past that keep you guessing about the current context, but still infects the play with the dreaded Dramatic Detachment Disease, in which the characters take much longer than we do to learn the answers to basic mysteries.
This makes Losing Louie an unnecessarily bumpy ride, but never dangerously so. Da Costa has written the four central 2006 characters sharply and familiarly, giving them the history they need to believably click. He also has a glimmering knack for character-specific comedy that compounds in hilarity as everyone's inherent incompatibilities mount: These climax in a crackling second-act joke-swapping session - in which Tony, Reggie, Sheila, and Elizabeth deliver and murder punch lines with gleeful abandon - that creates a cathartic post-funeral confessional where everyone inadvertently reveals things they'd never speak aloud. (Though much of Zaks's direction is pedestrian and efficient, it's spot-on comic work in this scene.)
Louie, Bella, and Bobbie receive a much thinner treatment, and the performers in those roles can't easily compensate. Important as the 1960s story eventually becomes, it's a soap-operatic counterpart to the 2006 group's more convincing familial struggles.
Those four actors do considerably better: If Linn-Baker is playing the same schlub he's played for ages, it's an honest, close fit for Louie that matches up well with Arkin's more lubricated, self-assured Reggie. Kalember and especially Pawk, who can pop even the corniest of lines into a hearty, showstopping snack, turn in the strongest work, inflating Losing Louie's comedic core to dizzying proportions.
In a way, they're mirror images of each other: One the model of a sophisticated femininity, the other a picture of an earthy tomboy forced to grow up and put on a dress (a restrained William Ivey Long designed the costumes). But each demonstrates, with pinpoint accuracy, how they were able to catch their respective men. Through their performances, we see how men are ultimately defined by the women who land them. Again, this isn't news, but Losing Louie makes the same old story some surprisingly fresh fun.