Camelot Theatre’s I Ought To Be In Pictures: An Intelligent Revitalization of An Underrated Neil Simon Work
– by Lee Greene
I have to admit I was quite pleasantly surprised by the opening night performance of Camelot Theatre’s production of the Neil Simon play, I Ought To Be In Pictures, on Friday evening, October 14, 2016. The show is being billed as a “Tony Award winning play”, but to be totally honest, the original Broadway production was nothing of the sort. Although young actress Dinah Manoff did collect a Featured Actress Tony for her performance, the play itself was NOT a Tony best play winner, and in fact, it received rather critical and disapproving reviews from Broadway theater critics (for example, Walter Kerr, writing for the New York Times had little good to say about the play, and a lot of criticism: “I’m sorry, but Neil Simon sentimental isn’t as good as Neil Simon funny. . . . I Ought To Be In Pictures, which opened at the Eugene O’Neill last night, strikes me as . . . rather pallid . . . .” [Walter Kerr, Theater: The New Neil Simon Comedy, The New York Times, April 4, 1980]
In short order, the 1980 Broadway play was adapted to a 1982 Hollywood film, which was equally critically panned. Vincent Canby for The New York Times: “Even though I didn’t see the play, I’ve no reason to believe that the film isn’t an all-too-faithful facsimile. I’m also sure that “I Ought To Be In Pictures” is exactly the picture everyone associated with it wanted to make. Having said that, I should immediately add that I found it unbearable.” [Vincent Canby, Matthau Back In Simon’s Hollywood, The New York Times, March 26, 1982]
So my expectations were not high, entering the theater to see Camelot’s production. Expecting the worst, I was instead treated to a surprising revelation – an intelligent and worthy interpretation of a less intelligently done and less worthy original Broadway show, and an even more poorly done film. How can that be? Pull up a chair and I’ll explain. Most of Neil Simon’s plays, and certainly his more successful ones, like The Sunshine Boys, The Goodbye Girl, California Suite and Only When I Laugh, were funny, glib, comedies, best known for clever, perceptive, quips and wisecracks. That’s what everybody (Broadway and film audiences, critics, and even the casts and production people involved) was expecting in I Ought To Be In Pictures too. But I Ought To Be In Pictures is NOT your standard Neil Simon fare, and to really work, needs to be approached differently.
I Ought To Be In Pictures spins the story of a confident, articulate, independent, self-sufficient 19 year old girl (Libby) from Brooklyn, abandoned at the age of three by her father (Herb) to pursue his career as a Hollywood screenwriter, who seeks him out and thrusts herself unannounced into his life 16 years later, with the expressed dream of becoming an actress and request that he open some doors for her. Herb is not the success she’s imagined him to be, suffers from writer’s block, lives in a small furnished house in Hollywood, spends his time at the race track rather than writing, devotes his affection to tending a couple of fruit trees in his yard, and receiving the attention and benefits from a good woman, Steffy, who’s making a better income than he is, as a hairdresser to the stars at 20th Century-Fox. So daughter and father meet, gingerly explore and test one another, experience a variety of typical, but late-in-life for them, parent-child situations and tensions, and eventually work their way to arriving at some sort of viable relationship.
To their credit, the Camelot Theatre cast and production people, led by brilliant young director, Brianna Gowland, recognized that I Ought To Be In Pictures was different than the typical witty humorous Neil Simon comedy and required a very different approach to presenting the work. Ms. Gowland, who previously directed Holmes and Watson Save The Empire for Randall Theatre and has been ubiquitous on the Southern Oregon theater scene lately as an actress, director, choreographer, clown, and whatever else a theater company might need in a pinch, explains in her Director’s Notes for I Ought To Be In Pictures: “The biggest test with this production . . . is to exhibit the story in a way that is true to the heart and soul of the script without losing the fact that life is funny. . . . One thing that stood out to me was the complexities of the relationships . . . . They are not always as simple as ‘I like you’ or ‘I dislike you.’ Sometimes they are, ‘I love you, but . . .’ or ‘I loathe you because. . .’ In this play, we get to explore those complexities.”
In his review of the original Broadway production, Mr. Kerr writes: “Comes the obligatory discussion, man-to-girl of sex. . . . [W]e’re dealing with a naiveté here unthinkable in the 19 year old Mr. Simon has tried to fashion for us, probing what are probably the very first issues to be settled by girl-talk. At 12 or 13, maybe? If our faith in the evening hasn’t been shaken before, it’s surely tottering now.” [Walter Kerr, Theater: The New Neil Simon Comedy, The New York Times, April 4, 1980]
It seems that Ms. Gowland is more astute than Mr. Kerr and understands what Mr. Simon has written better than the renowned New York critic did. Libby is not asking her questions about sex out of naiveté or for the first time at age 19, or because she has no clue of the answers. She is desperately trying to make a connection with this stranger, who is her father and needs to fill the heretofore empty role of paternal figure in her life. These discomforting father-daughter conversations are a way to probe the thoughts and feelings of the detached, distant unknown male figure, whom she needs to make a paternal connection with. This play is best served up with the focus on the relationships, not the humor.
Done well, this work presents a serious depiction of complex relationships, NOT a string of funny, wisecracking one liners. To do it well also requires a cast who not only understand that, but are skilled at taking on and depicting the serious emotional complexities of the relationships. In the film version, Walter Matthau, one of the finest comic actors of his generation, was arguably miscast in the Herb role. Again, from Mr. Canby’s review: “Because the characters so completely define the performances, the less said the better about the work of . . . Mr. Matthau. . . .” [Vincent Canby, Matthau Back In Simon’s Hollywood, The New York Times, March 26, 1982]
Camelot has cast the multi-talented Roy Von Rains, in the role. Mr. Von Rains has some serious acting chops, and the stage and film credits to prove it, as well as a long resume as a production assistant, production manager, stage manager, director, and of course, is currently serving as the company’s Artistic Director. Mr. Von Rains has all the tools to provide an exemplary performance of the Herb character, going deep into the emotional complexities the role requires, and still deliver the humorous repartee that playwright Simon sporadically sprinkles in his character’s lines.
Mr. Von Rains’ turn as Herb was outstanding – he rendered a totally believable, credible, heart wrenching performance, especially in challenging scenes in the 2nd Act, first in serious emotional struggle with his two year significant other, Steffy, well played also by actress Debbie Downward, admirably depicting the female side of that complex relationship. That very effective emotional scene is immediately followed by an even more demanding, intense scene between father and daughter.
Camelot has cast young neophyte, Sophie Marilla Stricker, recently graduated from Phoenix High School, in the daughter Libby role. Ms. Stricker is a delight to watch, and impossible to ignore, as she delivers a likable, but determined, young woman. (As described in my previous review of a Camelot show, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, doors have been opened under the new reign of Mr. Von Rains, as company Artistic Director, to create opportunities for young newcomers in key roles. [http://performingarts.reviews/2016/09/06/camelot-theatres-dirty-rotten-scoundrels/] This has not only produced successful results on the stage, but reinvigorated and re-energized the company. The casting of Ms. Stricker in a principal role and Ms. Gowland as director are two more glowing examples of this.)
As has been characteristic at the Camelot lately, the stagecraft for this show is exceptional. The audience enters to espy a terrific set on the stage. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect setting for a frustrated screenwriter’s Hollywood bungalow. Lighting, sound, costumes are all well done. This is definitely a show worth seeing, and for three good reasons: 1) This production reinvigorates an underappreciated Neil Simon work by intelligently setting the focus and perspective as it should be, on the serious complexities of the relationships rather than on the glib humor and quips, 2) Roy Von Rains as an actor on stage delivers a consummate performance in the key role- one that should not be missed, and should long be remembered, and 3) the show provides successful opportunities for fresh young talent, actress Sophie Marilla Stricker and director Brianna Gowland, illustrating the continued health and vitality of the Camelot Theatre company.
Performances of I Ought To Be In Pictures continue through November 6 at Camelot Theatre, 101 Talent Avenue, Talent, Thursday thru Saturday 8:00 pm, Sunday Matinees 2:00 pm. For tickets: order online at http://bit.ly/1EO71aR, or call the box office at 541-535-5250, or in person at 101 Talent Avenue, Talent, Oregon
All photos (except caricature and publicity posters) by Camelot Theatre photographer, Steve Sutfin.