Playing with earthy wit and easy grace the loyal housekeeper of a middle-class Jewish family summering in the Poconos, the actress L. Scott Caldwell walks off with Neil Simon’s new play, “Proposals,” though it must be said that she’s traveling light. With its measured proportions of punch lines and poignancy, this sixth Simon world premiere for the Ahmanson Theatre won’t disappoint the veteran playwright’s many fans, but it’s not likely to set Broadway afire either when it arrives this fall. It’s set in the ’50s, and it sometimes seems as if it was written then.
Caldwell is Clemma Diggins, the play’s narrator and a surrogate mother to 23-year-old Josie Hines (Suzanne Cryer) and surrogate wife to Burt Hines (Ron Rifkin), owner of a large chain of TV stores and victim of a smaller chain of heart attacks, though he’s just in his 50s. Simon’s subject here is the tribulations of love young and old, past and present, and as the play opens the spirited Josie is ending her engagement to the straight-arrow Harvard law student Ken Norman (Reg Rogers) while Burt awaits a visit from Josie’s mother, who left him years ago in frustration over his devotion to selling TV sets.
As the fractured family’s 22nd summer in the Poconos unfolds, Josie tries to rekindle an old romance with budding novelist Ray (Matt Letscher), who is also the unhappy Ken’s best friend; Burt tries to rekindle same with his ex-wife, Annie (Kelly Bishop), while also gently urging mother and daughter to heal the wounds of separation; and Clemma herself receives with grudging affection the return after seven years of her wayward husband, Lewis (Mel Winkler).
The characters go about their business with the trademark Simon combination of vulnerability masked by humor, but there’s nothing very fresh here in conception, and only an occasional glint of Simon’s wit at its best (as when Ray, describing his new girl, asks Josie what’s “between divine and perfection,” and she answers “exaggeration”). For the most part, the play is as thick with familiar emotional arcs as the stage is with John Lee Beatty’s pretty faux greenery.
Burt and Annie’s love-gone-astray tete-a-tete is peppered with cliched phrasings (“I never stopped loving you, but that doesn’t mean we belong together”), as is the emotional tug of war between Josie and her mother over Annie’s abandonment of the family (“I want my daughter back,” Annie laments, while Josie brings out bitter comic retorts with clockwork precision). Josie’s romantic entanglements with Ken and Ray are equally trite — we know Josie’s destined for Ray because she’s a sculptor and he’s a writer; Ken’s merely a lawyer (though one who, in Rogers’ somewhat overcooked performance, is so undone by his dismissal that he spends the rest of the play in a state of punch-drunk near hysteria).
For comic relief, Simon throws in a pair of stereotypes not seen onstage in some time: the dumb Italian stud and the dumb blonde. He’s Vinnie Bavasi (Peter Rini), admirer of Josie who pops in to litter the stage with malapropisms (taking in the scenery, he says, “This is nice, very outdoorsy, very pasteurized”). Simon tries to mitigate the tiredness of this conception by having Vinnie be half-aware of his curious wordplay, an unconvincing ploy. (The playwright knows his audience, though; damned if they don’t give a hearty laugh to every one of Vinnie’s wacky neologisms.) The blonde is Sammii (Katie Finneran), a model who’s Ray current girlfriend and who has much ditzy business about a dead bird.
Joe Mantello’s direction is largely unobtrusive, and he elicits some very fine work from Caldwell, who brings a rich roundedness to her character, helped by Simon’s most inspired writing. Her scene of reconciliation with her husband is both the play’s funniest and most moving. “I don’t know who the Lord’s looking out for, you or me,” she says as she warily agrees to take him back into her life, with a hint of happiness gleaming under layers of resignation and mistrust. Winkler, as the errant husband, does good work with just a few scenes.
Rifkin and Bishop give understated performances in their too sketchy roles, while Rini and Finneran relish their broader turns. As the callow and somewhat callous Josie, the play’s not entirely sympathetic central character, Cryer, a lovely young actress who’s had quite a good year on local stages (in South Coast Rep’s “Collected Stories” and the Taper’s “Arcadia”), could do with some toning down of her bounciness — she bounds spiritedly across the stage, even if she’s only moving six inches. She is also in danger of lapsing into a vocally mannered style that can be distracting.
With some pruning of its excessive three-hour length, “Proposals” would doubtless improve — and even in its present form it’s a perfectly amiable, old-fashioned entertainment — but it’s far from being among Simon’s strongest works.