The “ghost comedy” is a tried a true genre that, for me at least, never fails to entertain. You know the story.  Ghost returns from the other side to haunt our hero (or heroine), the only one who can see or hear said ghost, a situation leading to exchanges like the following (purely of my own creation):

Hero:    Could you come into my office, Miss Jones.
Secretary:     Yes, sir.
Ghost: (to Hero)       I need to know how you feel about me.
Hero: (to Ghost)       I love you.
Secretary:     (shocked) You love me, sir?

The genre has worked for decades, if not centuries.  Noel Coward tried it in Blithe Spirit. It’s been the basis for countless films and TV sitcoms, from Topper to The Ghost And Mrs. Muir to the recent Reese Witherspoon/Mark Ruffalo flick Just Like Heaven.

Now it’s Neil Simon’s turn, in his 2003 comedy Rose’s Dilemma, and if the play is not at the level of Simon classics like The Odd Couple, Lost in Yonkers, and Brighton Beach Memoirs, even second-string Neil Simon is better than most playwrights’ first-string work, making for an entertaining, funny, and surprisingly poignant evening of theater—especially in a production as first-rate as the one running at Sierra Madre Playhouse.

Well-known author Rose Steiner has been suffering from writer’s block (and a serious lack of funds) since the death of her one true love, the charming philanderer Walsh McLaren, a best-selling novelist in his own right. Her personal assistant Arlene tells Rose, “Your bills keep mounting, your debts increasing … and still you made fresh lobster for dinner,” to which an unconcerned Rose responds, “Rub your tongue in the cracks of your teeth. So good, that if you didn’t brush your teeth, there’s enough leftovers in there for tomorrow.”  

Rose’s dilemma, at least as she sees it, is not economizing, but what to do about her five-year relationship with a ghost, a relationship that even includes lovemaking, though as Rose puts it, “To be quite frank, sex with a dead man isn’t half as good as I was led to believe.” Walsh feels that it’s time for both of them to move on, or as he tells her, “My effort and your imagination don’t last forever. You mean too much to me to see you losing your independence.”  

So Walsh sets a deadline.  In two weeks he’ll be 65 (or at least that’s how old he’d be if he hadn’t died) and after that, Rose will have to be on her own.  In the meantime, Walsh has a plan to help Rose avoid bankruptcy.  “There’s a hot book just waiting around to be published,” he tells her, and that book is Mexican Standoff, the novel he’d been writing at the time of his death.  “I had thirty, maybe forty more pages to go when I suddenly had that heart attack.”

Walsh’s suggestion?  Rose should hire a ghost-writer (no pun intended) to complete the manuscript, and Walsh has just the man to do the job—Gavin Clancy, a young, sexy, rough around the edges novelist with just one paperback to his credit.

Will Clancy be able to duplicate Walsh’s distinctive style?  Will Rose be able to let go of an old love and move on? Will there be romantic sparks between Clancy and Rose, or between Clancy and Arlene, whose relationship with Rose may just be more than meets the eye?

These are just some of the questions that are answered in Rose’s Dilemma, with laughs galore and maybe even a tear or two.

As the imperious Rose, Margaret McCarley hits all the right notes, giving us occasional glimpses of the needy woman under her tough broad surface.  That McCarley’s performance at times reminded me of Marsha Mason seems particularly fitting for this role, as Mason was for many years Simon’s wife and muse.  A tip of the hat, also, to an inspired McCarley ad lib on opening night.  When one of Rose’s clip-on earrings fell to the floor, McCarley did just what Rose would have done. She turned to Clancy and ordered him to “Pick that up!”

Don Savage, as Walsh, has just the rich baritone, sophistication, and devilish twinkle in the eye that would captivate Rose even five years after his death.  Elizabeth Gordon (Arlene) gives a terrifically natural performance, and more than holds her own against the commanding McCarley.  Completing the quartet is quirkily handsome Norman Dostal, whose electric stage presence makes Clancy just the man to turn a middle-aged author, or a 30something assistant’s head.

Roxanne Barker makes a welcome return to the director’s chair with this production.  Barker knows how to stage a scene for maximum effectiveness (Rose and Walsh’s scenes are played big and theatrically, while Arlene and Clancy’s moments are smaller and more intimate), and manages (despite the fantastic nature of the script) to keep things real and surprisingly believable.

Jerry Marble’s clever set design allows Walsh’s ghost to walk through walls (which as everyone knows is just what ghosts do) and interior designer Aimee Brazeau has decorated the set to colorful perfection, with turquoise walls and just the paintings, furniture, and knickknacks that one would find in a beach house in the Hamptons. McCarley has adeptly created her own fashions for Rose, including a stylish black pseudo-Chanel suit.  Lois Tedrow gets credit for the rest of the cast’s just-right costumes.  Steven Shaw’s sound design features a wonderfully chosen bunch of songs to accompany scene changes, including The Fifth Dimension’s unforgettable “Last Night I Didn’t Get To Sleep At All.” Only Jonathan Acuna’s rather stark lighting design could be improved upon, in order to more clearly suit the various times of day (and night) in which the play takes place.

Rose’s Dilemma proves that even at 76, Neil Simon was still capable of some darned good writing, and the thoroughly entertaining Sierra Madre Playhouse production sets the bar high for the season yet to come.

Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre.

–Steven Stanley
August 29, 2008
Photos: John Johnson

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