The woodland setting isn’t the only thing misty in Neil Simon’s new “Proposals” — the playwright’s eyes all but spritz with dew. His sentimentality holding a death grip on characters and contrivances that were given up for gone long ago, Simon survives this foggy forest through craft alone, the rim-shot dialogue and predictable plotlines at least somewhat comforting in their familiarity.
Any notion that director Joe Mantello would inject some youthful edge — or at least view things from this side of the Eisenhower Era — all but evaporates in a procession of characters that emerge from a haze of gentle, fuzzy stereotypes. “Proposals” is unapologetic in its golden-hued approach to folksy black housekeepers, filled with sass and the Lord’s righteousness, and pinkie-ringed Italian goombahs who fish with guns because it’s more “humane-able,” but only Simon fans will be as warmly disposed.
A memory play, “Proposals” is told in flashback by the ghost of the housekeeper, taking place over the course of a summer “40 or 50 years ago” in a Pocono Mountains vacation home (idyllically designed by John Lee Beatty). Burt Hines (Dick Latessa) is the 50ish patriarch whose business success has left him with a lovely country place, a wife who walked out on him and a series of heart attacks that will make this summer his last. His loving 22-year-old daughter, Josie (Suzanne Cryer), remains angry at mother Annie (Kelly Bishop) for the divorce years earlier, so Mom’s weekend arrival at Dad’s invitation promises tension.
“I felt something brewing in the air that day,” says loyal and loving housekeeper Clemma (L. Scott Caldwell in the standout performance), “something only people with discontent and aching hearts can make.” Clemma needn’t be a psychic for such portentous musings: Also converging for the weekend are Josie’s recently rebuffed and heartbroken ex-fiance, Ken (Reg Rogers); Ken’s best friend (and Josie’s secret love), the novelist-next-door Ray (Matt Letscher); Ray’s stupid-model girlfriend, Sammii (Katie Finneran); Vinnie (Peter Rini), an Italian stallion from Miami smitten by Josie (“This guy’s got a black belt in handshaking!”); and Lewis (Mel Winkler), Clemma’s ramblin’ husband.
Romances kindle and rekindle, old wounds are bared and grievances forgiven, all with the trademark Simon humor that this time around seems worse for the wear. “Your skin is so well-protected a safecracker couldn’t get through,” says bitter daughter Josie in a typical put-down of her jet-setting mom, Annie. After the girl tries to break off her engagement through a poem, Ken snaps, “That’s how you break off with Shelley or Keats!”
Not all of the repartee is so improbable, though, nor is all the serious dialogue as banal as the where-did-we-go-wrong encounter between Mom and Dad (“Is being good together the same as being in love?” he asks about Annie’s new marriage). But the success-failure ratio of the zings is hardly up with Simon’s best, and this collection of one-note characters is among the least credible in the playwright’s canon.
A play in which each cartoon type is fated to pair up with the cartoon type most approximating himself, “Proposals” finds its level of humor in Vinnie’s repeated mangling of the English language (Norm Crosby should sue). “It was like ancient Rome,” the gold-chained Vinnie says after watching Ken and Ray argue, “a fight between two gladiolas.” Simon occasionally winks that Vinnie isn’t as dumb as he appears, but to little “uh-vantage,” as Vinnie would say.
Equally comic-strip is Sammii, a dumb blonde who spends most of “Proposals” sobbing over a dead bird (the play’s low point is the funeral). However well played by Rini and Finneran, these characters seem to have arrived at the Poconos direct from the Catskills.
Cast members with less formidable challenges fare better. Latessa and Winkler are so likable it’s hard to imagine them as the insensitive husbands they’re supposed to have been, and Letscher is fine in the white-bread role of the hopeful author. Bishop is a bit too elusive as the prodigal mother (dressed in get-ups improbably glamorous for the country — it’s never explained how the ex-wife of a TV salesman marries into Parisian society), and Cryer a touch too flinty to account for all the love interests, but both women have their moments. Rogers, as the dumped boyfriend, is affecting at first, but so overplays the hangdog stuff he’s like David Schwimmer on a bender.
Only Caldwell, through force of personality, completely transforms her role from caricature to character, giving life to a type that even sitcoms have moved beyond. There was more than a little patronizing going on in the writing of this character — it takes Clemma’s soulful wisdom and compassion to set the white folks right — but Caldwell’s portrayal has enough texture to move past it. Her performance alone justifies the seemingly arbitrary choice of Clemma as narrator: For all this play’s faults, its author still knows a crowd-pleaser when he sees it.