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Proposals

By:Neil Simon
Director:Joe Mantello
Sets:John Lee Beatty
Costumes:Jane Greenwood
Lighting:Brian MacDevitt
Sound:Tom Clark
Opened:11/97 at the Broadhurst Theater
Cast:L. Scott Caldwell, Dick Latessa, Suzanne Cryer, Reg Rogers, Matt Letscher, Kelly Bishop, Peter Rini, Katie Finneran and Mel Winkler

Early on, it's obvious this is not your typical Neil Simon outing. Set in a lush green countryside punctuated with bird calls, this story travels far from his typical cityscape. And did we mention one of its main characters is black? Yes, Simon, a chronicler of the angsty Jewish experience, blazes new territory in this animated romantic comedy that steals from the successful formula behind his autobiographical triptych: Brighton Beach Memoirs,Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound. Like them, it follows an aspiring artist (Letscher as a novelist) and frames its tale with a narrator. However, the storyteller here is Clemma Diggins (Caldwell), an African-American maid, who keeps house for an ailing man (Latessa) and his young daughter (Cryer), who are spending their last summer at the family's resort. There are suitors and exes afoot, all convening at the cabin during one crazy weekend. True to Simon's touch, the dialogue's finger-snapping sharp and the stories tightly woven; however, the characters lack the necessary dimensionality to call this new work a bona fide triumph. To keep the converging plots flowing, Mantella's direction feels more like traffic-control than fine theater. Meanwhile, many of the barbs and one-liners spill out like sitcom laugh tracks for a tiring — and empty — effect. As a result, the fine cast (Cryer especially emerges as a talent to follow) lapses into a ba-dump-bump shtick routine. It's admirable that Simon has dared to deviate from his tried-and-true ouevre, but Proposals just can't shake its by-the-numbers feel.