Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Also see Gil's review of Newsies
Set in a Long Island oceanside town, Simon centers the piece on Rose Steiner (Marney Austin), a Pulitzer Prize winning writer in her mid-60s who was recently declared legally blind. Her partner Walsh McLaren (Tom Koelbel), an incredibly successful mystery writer, we quickly learn, died five years before but is still present in Rose's life as she continually summons him to appear for his companionship and to assist her in dealing with her daily dilemmas. He is visible only to Rose, and the two have frequent conversations, but Walsh informs her that he's had enough of their nightly banter and gives her a two week notice that he will be leaving her for good. He then tells her that he knows she is broke and he has left her his last unfinished work, which has been in Rose's home all of this time in a cabinet that, if she is able to finish it, should make her millions and keep her comfortable for their rest of her life.
Walsh also has a way to counter Rose's poor eyesight and her inability to focus by suggesting she call a young writer named Gavin Clancy (Jason Isaak), who just happens to live in the next town over and whose book just happened to appear in the pocket of Walsh's robe, and whom Walsh believes will be able to finish the piece in Walsh's style. Rose can voice Walsh's suggestions to Clancy but they only have the two weeks before Walsh leaves forever to finish the work. Added into the mix is Arlene Moss (Julie Lee), Rose's younger assistant and housemate, who falls for Clancy and also has a secret of her own.
Simon's plot is all over the place. It starts to go in one direction, shifts gears, turns from comical to sad, and leaves many intriguing plot points unresolved. There are also many contrived plot pieces (the unfinished manuscript that's been in a cabinet that no one has opened for five years is just one of these). It could have been an intriguing drama about a woman coming to the realization that it's finally time to let go of her past and her ties to her deceased lover and how she spends her last two weeks with him, or even a comedy about a woman and her ghostly lover employing a "ghost" writer to help finish a novel. Or, it could have been a poignant drama that focuses on the strains that art and the drive for success and the choices one makes, good or bad, put on familial relations. Simon brings all of these elements into his piece yet just as soon as you think the piece is going in one direction, it abruptly shifts gears into another and leaves all of these potential plots unfinished. Also, while it features some of Simon's incredibly well written prose and comical lines, the fact that it centers on two older authors unable to create something on the same level as their earlier works and that it is written by Simon who is clearly far below his usual standard is both sad and strange.
Fortunately, the piece does include interesting characters, some funny lines, and a truly hilarious sequence in which Rose works with Clancy on the manuscript with Walsh in the room and her conversations with Walsh completely confuse Clancy. That scene is a throwback to some of Simon's well composed earlier comedies and while those moments don't completely counter the play's shortcomings, they do show glimmers of Simon's well-known genius.
Theatre Artists Studio's cast is fine under Deborah Lee Hall's direction. While most do well at delivering the few big funny lines, and create realistic characters, it's hard for them, and Hall, to be entirely successful under Simon's plodding script (act one is overly long) and shifting tones. Austin and Koelbel deliver Simon's witty repartee with ease and they create a fun, bickering couple who clearly also have a palpable love for each other. Austin portrays Rose's conflicted feelings quite well, though we never really get a sense or realization of the loss and emptiness his absence will leave, or any urgency that Walsh's two-week notice gives her to wrap up any unfinished business. Chalk that up mainly to Simon's lackluster script and the shifting plot. Koelbel is sleek, witty and charming as Walsh and delivers plenty of fun moments as a somewhat mischievous ghost. Isaak infuses Clancy with a keen sense of likability, though the character is underwritten, which doesn't give him many layers to play. Fortunately, Simon gives Arlene nuance and an intriguing backstory and Lee perfectly delivers what's required to create a character full of realism. Her second act outburst is pitch perfect and infused with soul searching emotion and truth as is her final monologue.
One major misstep: Rose mentions several times that she has been declared legally blind, but we never get a sense of that in how Austin, under Hall's direction, navigates her way with ease around her living room and only a few times puts on her glasses to read or find something.
Rose and Walsh starts out as a comical ghost story but tries to also be a poignant drama of ageism and the strain that the drive for success takes on relationships. Theatre Artists Studio's production is successful in navigating through these changes in tone and plot but, unfortunately, Simon's shifts are too abrupt and too many plot devices are left unfinished to be a truly successful comedy.
Rose and Walsh, through September 2, 2018, at at Theatre Artists Studio, 4848 East Cactus Road, Scottsdale AZ. Tickets are on sale at www.TheStudioPHX.org or by calling 602-765-0120.
Director/Sound Design: Deborah Lee Hall