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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Chase

I Ought to Be in Pictures at Desiderio's

Review by Anthony Chase


Dave Lundy, Reagan Zuber, and Lisa Hinca

I Ought to Be in Pictures is one of the many lesser-known Neil Simon plays. Produced on Broadway in 1980, it was number 18 in a roster of his plays that would eventually surpass 30 titles. Jay Desiderio, impresario of Desiderio’s Dinner Theatre at Bobby J’s Italian American Grille in Cheektowaga, gravitates toward these less frequently produced, and arguably undervalued scripts. 

 

When Simon wrote I Ought to Be in Pictures, he had already established his reputation with such Broadway hits as Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple, but in between, titles like The Gingerbread Lady and God’s Favorite had muted his standing.  In 1966, Walter Kerr of the New York Times disparagingly wrote of Star-Spangled Girl, "Neil Simon, your friendly neighborhood gagman, hasn't had an idea for a play this season, but he's gone ahead and written one anyway."

 

Even after the gigantic success of Broadway productions of Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple, both directed with pioneering insight and restraint by Mike Nichols, subsequent versions performed across the country, done in the old-fashioned burlesque style, had made these brilliant comedies look hackneyed. Today, Simon is widely regarded, not merely as your friendly neighborhood gagman, but as a master of American comedy. In the 1970s, however, that reputation was far from secure. 

 

Recent years have seen a reappraisal of some of the neglected plays. Tellingly, these plays represent career highlights for many of the performers who starred in them.  Maureen Stapleton won a Tony Award and a Drama Desk Award for The Gingerbread Lady.  Dinah Manoff won the Tony for I Ought to be In Pictures, and reprised her performance on film.


Few will remember the plot of this mostly forgotten play, so here goes: Herb Tucker is a washed-up Hollywood screenwriter who has been in a once-a-week relationship with Steffy Blondell, a single-mother and Hollywood studio make-up artist, for two-years. This going-nowhere scenario is disrupted when 19-year-old Libby Tucker shows up at the door of Herb’s small West Hollywood bungalow.  Libby, we learn, is Herb’s daughter.  He walked out on her, her mother, and her infant brother in Brooklyn 16 years ago. Let the games begin!


The challenge in staging Neil Simon is the ability to distinguish the difference between genuine insight expressed through the exposure of life’s profound absurdities, and mere sentimentality expressed through clever one-liners.  The intimacy of the space and the excellence of the actors at Desiderio’s makes this rendering of the show rather more heartfelt and revealing than one might expect at a dinner theater.

 

Indeed, David Lundy gives an original rendition of Herb Tucker, the struggling Hollywood screenwriter played on film with mush mouthed befuddlement by Walter Matthau, and on Broadway with reportedly frenetic vigor by Rob Leibman (an actor best remembered for originating the role of Roy Cohn in Angels in America on Broadway). As Herb, Lundy is a model of studied detachment and ineffectually avoidance, as he expertly navigates his character’s litany of bad decisions and disappointments in a manner that evokes hilarity.

 

The women who interact with Herb in this three-character play are his girlfriend Steffy, played by Lisa Hinca, who is just about done with him and his unwillingness to make a commitment; and Libby, played by Reagan Zuber, his sort-of daughter, who arrives with career aspirations and a ton of guilt-imbued baggage, but who is really looking for validation and love (there’s the sentimentality trap).

 

Hinca, who seems to play most of the wife-mother-girlfriend roles at Desiderio’s, gives another fine performance here. Every time Herb tosses her a dismissive jest, she deflects with a smart come-back, upping the ante with every exchange.  She creates an unflappable woman with great warmth, which enables her to remind clueless Herb of how very much he has to lose by wanting so little. 

 

The most endearing character in this trio is, of course, Libby Tucker, the self-confident 19-year-old with the barely hidden agenda.  Reagan Zuber assays the role admirably with ample charm and an excellent sense of comedy. 

 

Under the direction of Jay Desiderio, these three capable actors deliver a most credible and gratifying production of this needlessly neglected play. 

 

I Ought to Be In Pictures continues through March 30th.  Call 716- 395-3207 to make reservations for dinner and the show.

 

 

 

 

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