Neil Simon is now 88 years old, and I hope he's enjoying his old age. He's earned it. The author of 30 plays, plus a couple of dozen screenplays and the holder of numerous awards—among them a Pulitzer Prize--has been prolific, proficient and wildly successful.
With their production of I Ought to be in Pictures, Invisible Theatre gives us a pretty good example of Simon's skill. This piece probably doesn't march in the ranks with his best, but with a solid cast and a capable director (Susan Claassen) and design team, it's a charming and pleasant enough way to spend a couple of hours.
It's 1975 when we are introduced to Herb (David Alexander Johnston), an upper-middle-aged, attachment-averse writer in Hollywood. Herb landed there after leaving his family in Brooklyn—with no warning—16 years earlier. That family consisted of a wife and two young children. He has had fairly decent luck writing for films and such, but has lost interest or lacks motivation, because he hasn't been very busy of late. He'd much prefer a day at the races than pitch ideas for scripts to way too youthful, in his humble opinion, Hollywood power brokers. His girlfriend, Steffy (Susan Kovitz), doesn't get from him all she wants, but puts up with him. Kovitz creates a character that lets us know that Herb really does have something to give.
Into his untidy life appears a 19-year-old girl, who claims to be his daughter. Libby (Lucille Petty) shows up unannounced one sunny morning. She's rather gangly and a bit unsure of herself, although she does a pretty good job of covering up any uncertainty with a directness that is impressive for a teenage girl. She has availed herself of a bus and her thumb to make her trek from Brooklyn.
Herb is surprised and not particularly welcoming, although he listens to this girl and wonders what she wants. If he feels any guilt about his desertion, he hides it pretty well, although we do see a bit of defensiveness in his demeanor. When Libby says that she wishes to be a film actress and thinks that his connections can help her fulfill her dream, Herb reads in her attitude that what she's really saying is, he owes her. He does, and they both know it.
Characteristically, Simon devises situations with a ring of truth about human behavior, probing that behavior in a gentle way, and always with humor. He's a master of this approach. He often doesn't dig too deep, and he doesn't mean to.
He gives the actors who take on these characters a real challenge. They have to be likeable even when they're not. In this case he gives Johnston a tight line to toe, and although Johnston may not be totally successful, he comes close enough.
Petty's Libby is pretty much perfect. She balances Libby's grit and independence with her vulnerability, and that results in signs of growth for father and daughter.
All of these actors know how to handle Simon's zingers, which makes for a light-hearted and pleasant evening.