Theatre Review: Act II Playhouse’s I Ought to Be in Pictures: Better Than It Ought to Be
Neil Simon’s I Ought to Be in Pictures is not one that hits the theater rotation very often, so I was quite excited to see a new-to-me play by an American favorite. It quickly became apparent why it’s rarely produced, despite a very solid production by Act II Playhouse.
It’s 1980. Herb (Tony Braithwaite) is a 40-something failing screenwriter living in Hollywood. He is witty and sardonic, with a crappy house (appropriately shabby set by Parris Bradley) and no new ideas. What he does have is a lovely longtime friend-with-benefits, Steffy (Tracie Higgins), and two abandoned kids in New York, whom he hasn’t seen since he walked out 16 years ago. Until now. 19-year-old Libby whirls in with a heavy backpack and a Brooklyn accent to match. She’s independent, speaks to her dead grandmother (hilariously), and has the vocabulary of a 1940s gumshoe for some reason. We find out that she wants to be an actress! Who better to ask for help than her deadbeat dad? So, maybe Libby doesn’t make a lot of sense. But she’s infectious, due in no small part to the excellent Jessica Rilof, who plays Libby with enough sincerity for us to go along with it.
After a bad start, Herb and Libby get to know each other. In just two short weeks, Herb learns about unconditional love and the agony of parenthood. Poor Steffy sees this and realizes she wants to get in on some of that new Herb. But Herb still must come to terms with his various issues, and Libby needs to figure out why she really came to California, plus ask her new dad for sex advice along the way. In case you were wondering how well Neil Simon portrays 19-year-old women.
On that note, the play hasn’t aged particularly well in an era when our empathy for asshats-who-treat women-badly is wearing thin. I still don’t understand why Herb completely abandoned his children to begin with, despite a monologue about his wife not laughing at his jokes (maybe they weren’t funny, Herb). At one point in the first act I found myself wishing Simon had written a play about Libby and her dead grandmother instead. There’s also a dumb/sexist line about boys playing piano that is supposed to get laughs, but even Braithwaite’s read of it seems apologetic, and it fell flat with the audience.
All that being said, I can’t imagine the source material getting any better than with this production. Director Tom Teti smartly keeps things fast paced, which mutes some of the issues. The actors manage to make the jokes funnier than they ought to be, especially Rilof. Braithwaite keeps Herb specific, nodding to the trope rather than learning into it, and Herb eventually wins us over. Miracle worker Tracie Higgins brings nuance to the character of Steffy, a role so thankless that Simon shoves her in the bathroom anytime she’s not needed to advance the plot. The trio really gets to show off their acting chops in the second act, and the climax is unexpectedly touching and lovely.
Simon wrote this piece before diving into his memoir plays, and so it’s interesting to see how certain themes emerge here that come back in full force later. Act II Playhouse gives us the opportunity to see this process on stage with its great production, so who cares if it’s a not-so-great play. Go see it while you can.
Act II Playhouse
56 E. Butler Avenue
Ambler, PA 19002