Neil Simon has been dancing around the issue of aging for about a decade now, never going toe-to-toe with the real consequence of old age: death. In “Rose and Walsh,” he finally confronts the afterlife and its effect on loved ones left behind, creating his most rewarding play in years. “Rose and Walsh” is simple in its construct — an often-comical, eventually poignant ghost story — and refreshing in its logic. Jane Alexander and Len Cariou wear the lead roles like the comfortable pajamas they use for costumes; once they get past the play’s overlong gambit, the reality of these two respected writers arguing and paying compliments to one another is a palpable demonstration of a long-tested love.
Simon successfully marries modern theatrics and plot devices with simple narrative in a way he hasn’t done since his mid-1980s hot streak that included “Broadway Bound,” striking that delicate balance between the comic (much of the first act) and the profound (the second). And he explores themes that have peppered recent plays such as “Proposals” — parent-child issues, the legacy of artists, the evolution of long-term relationships, concealed anger — but he has never been so direct and single-minded as in “Rose and Walsh.”
Play boasts a first act that stumbles over exposition as it gets out of the gate but recovers nicely in a sea of laughs; the second act is a quick 45 minutes that, in its brevity, prevents sentimental treacle from taking over.
There’s a big audience for a work like this, especially when it’s in the hands of these four fine actors, and “Rose and Walsh” could well see extended runs anywhere it’s staged — even Broadway.
A device that worked well in David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Proof” — put a talking dead man onstage — is the primary conceit in “Rose and Walsh.” In this case, it’s the 64-year-old Walsh (Cariou), deceased for five years but alive in the mind of Rose (Alexander). He wants out — no more visits to their nicely appointed beachfront home in East Hampton — and he gives her two weeks’ notice.
Before he casts off, though, he offers a gift that has the potential to keep her financially secure as she, too, hits retirement age. (Apparently, guilt exists in the soul.) Stored away in a cabinet under the liquor bottles is his unfinished manuscript “Mexican Standoff.” It needs a final chapter of 40 pages. Rose, a playwright, lecturer and two-time Pulitzer winner herself, has a style that won’t fit Walsh’s gritty and tough mystery novels, so he recommends the young author of a book he found in his robe pocket — Clancy (David Aaron Baker).
Clancy, quite the fan of Walsh’s writing, has given up on being an author — his own mystery novel flopped four years earlier. A fellow Eastern Long Island resident from the wrong side of the tracks, he comes into the project as a raw, even shifty individual, though he finds inspiration in Walsh’s work and even bangs out a novel of his own with “Mexican Standoff” hanging over his head.
A woman billed first as Rose’s assistant, Arlene (Marin Hinkle), reveals herself first to be a summertime friend and, in the second act, as Rose’s daughter from a tryst 35 years ago in New Orleans. Raised by her father, only since Walsh’s death has Arlene been able to spend any time with her mother, an absentee parent who could only be counted on when birthdays rolled around.
Arlene, gently at first and later at fever pitch, demands Rose confront the reality of the here-and-now rather than cherry-pick her way through the past. As the play progresses, she finally feels comfortable calling Rose “mom,” but by then she’s such a bundle of questions that niceties have turned to weighty demands, usually about how they’ll jumpstart their lives. Perhaps she fears she’ll repeat her mother’s mistakes — it’s suggested both had poor upbringings — and Arlene is a writer, too, adrift with no special love in her life. In this play that is ultimately about transitions, Arlene finds love and reconciliation as Rose subtly regrets missed opportunities — most recently, she did not take full advantage of her two-week allotment of Walsh’s time. Simon wraps up “Rose and Walsh” with short, honed reflections and actions that the six previous scenes appear to be working toward. He leaves no loose ends, even borrowing from Tennessee Williams to extinguish a light left burning.
The relationship between Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman hangs over “Rose and Walsh” — the oceanside retreat, talks of misspent wealth, chronic unfaithfulness — though Simon’s characters are equals in age and never venture into politics. Cariou, who played the dead father in the last cast of “Proof” on Broadway, has a warm and stately presence; he gets to be funny at the play’s conclusion, relating a tale about Charles’ Dickens’ wedding, and his character is still the passionate writer we met when he wanted a scribe to finish his book.
Alexander gives Rose a tremendous spirit, tethered in some places and free elsewhere. The straight face, the emotional outburst, the self-deprecating remark, the demand for respect — Alexander has a natural flair in bringing together Rose’s conflicting traits. She radiates honesty from the stage.
Hinkle, so unassuming in the first act, is asked to make the biggest character leap; she does get there, by playing a confrontational scene with mom quite big. Most effective, however, is her finale, a nuanced tear-raising perf that was note-perfect on opening night. Baker does yeoman work as the writer who rediscovers himself.
For once, a splendid Geffen Playhouse set (John Arnone has crafted a luxurious seaside cottage with an unseen second floor) doesn’t upstage the direction. David Esbjornson keeps his quartet in motion defined by the logic of the script — when one is talking to a dead person that the other person can’t see, the actors need to be lined up so dialogue travels a natural path. He gets the entire night to continually climb in intensity until it hits a spot, near the end, where it can rest. Simon, Esbjornson and the cast are all uniquely in step with each other; this is one of the best productions in the six-season history of the Geffen.
On opening night, the play was stopped about 15 minutes in as a patron needed medical help. The play had started sluggishly, the dialogue wasn’t ringing quite truthfully, and the leads — the only ones onstage at the time — had yet to find the exact tone needed for this week. When the play resumed, less than 10 minutes later, Alexander and Cariou emerged at a much higher energy level and delivered far more convincing perfs than witnessed in the first scene. It’s that opening that needs tightening, but the significant break gave the actors the opportunity to demonstrate the profound difference between skating through and inhabiting a role.