by Neil Simon
Artisan Center Theater
Directed by John Wilkerson
Produced by Dee Ann Blair
Set Design - Jason Leyva and John Wilkerson
Lighting Design - Robert Molina
Costume Design - Jennifer Cadenhead
Properties Design - Tammie Phillips
Sound Design - Jason Leyva
Clemma Diggins - LaNetia Taylor
Burt Hines - Mark Winter
Josie Hines - Lori Jones
Ken Norman - Michael Alger
Ray Dolenz - Zeke Branim
Annie Robbins - Rose Ann Holman
Vinnie Bavasi - Mateo Prada
Sammii - Lynsey Hale
Lewis Barnett - Charles Bryant
Reviewed Performance 5/7/2011
Reviewed by Lyle Huchton, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
In his curtain speech at Saturday evening's performance of Neil Simon's Proposals, Artisan Center Theater founder, Richard Blair, announced to the audience this was the third time that his wife and Artisan Producer, Dee Ann Blair, has decided to mount this production. Judging from what I witnessed on stage that night, I would say third times the charm for Artisan.
Proposals ran on Broadway for only 77 performances in 1997, making it Neil Simon's least successful play. He did step out of his comfort zone by using an outdoor setting for the action. He also wrote his first African-American leading character in the part of Clemma Diggins (LaNetia Taylor).
Artisan chose to set the time period in early 1960 although Simon wrote the play to be set in the summer of 1953. The story was narrated by Clemma, the family's longtime housekeeper, and centered on Burt Hines (Mark Winter) and his family's yearly trip to their retreat in the Poconos. Nine different people visited the house on that particular afternoon. Among the guests were Annie Robbins (Rose Ann Holman) Burt's ex-wife, Lewis Barnett (Charles Bryant) Clemma's long absent husband, and Vinnie Bavasi (Mateo Prada) a Miami gangster. To make the plot thicken, Burt's daughter Josie (Lori Jones) had just broken off her engagement Ken Norman (Michael Alger). If that was not enough Ray Dolenz (Zeke Branim) Josie's old boyfriend showed up with his new model girlfriend Sammii (Lynsey Hale).
Director John Wilkerson brought together a competent and evenly balanced cast. Each member of this ensemble worked together as a whole but also allowed moments for each to shine. They took time to let the story be told honestly and didn't play the script for just the laughs.
LaNetia Taylor as Clemma offered one the best examples of this gracious give and take. When narrating she gently cast the audience under her quiet spell. In the scenes with her fellow actors she rejected the opportunity to steal focus and played the comedy with truth. Mark Winter (Burt Hines) also gave a multi-layered performance. In one instance he would be the caring but nosy Father, handing out advice and hugs. Then his performance turned, showing a regretful side to all the past choices he has made. As his ex-wife Annie Robbins (Rose Ann Holman) also took a clear approach to her character. Before we (the audience) met her, the other characters painted a not so flattering picture of the former Mrs. Burt Hines. But when she arrived she was nothing like we perceived. Ms. Holman understood her characters motivation and was able to weave together a deep and meaningful performance.
The two biggest surprises of this ensemble were Mateo Prada as Vinnie Bavasi and Lynsey Hale as Sammii. Both actors could have easily pushed themselves over the top since both are written so flamboyantly. Mr. Prada's Vinnie spoke only in malapropisms and Ms. Hale's Sammii was not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree. But because both actors played each character with such sincere honesty, it was easy to believe them.
I was amazed when I stepped into the theater at Artisan. The scenic design was some of the best and most inventive around. The set for Proposals did not disappoint. Set designers Jason Leyva and John Wilkerson turned the stage into the summer cabin's back yard. Against one wall was the backside of the house with two porches at either end. The adjoining wall was painted to look like a vast forest filled with pine trees. Across the way were more trees, this time 3-dimensional in form flanked by a child's swing set. In the center of the playing area was a picnic table where most of the action took place. I did, however, find the benches on either side of the table to be too large and cumbersome. I say they were benches but they were more like church pews. Every actor who sat at the table had trouble getting in and out of them. They would function better without the backs on them. This would have allowed better flow of the action and ease for the actor's blocking.
The biggest compliment a costume designer can get is to have a character enter a scene and, without saying a word, have the audience burst into applause. This is what happened when Vinnie Bavasi made his first entrance. Costume designer Jennifer Cadenhead predictably outfitted the Miami gangster in a white polyester leisure suit complete with a tacky print shirt, pinky ring and huge medallion necklace. Although most of the other costumes were not at all the right period, she could be forgiven because she did a fairly nice job of enhancing each character.
Artisan Center Theater is one of a handful of community theater companies in the area that stick to their convictions to offer wholesome and family friendly shows, usually large scale musicals with huge casts and ambitious production numbers. With a season ticket subscription base at 1,200 members and growing they are doing something right. But what they have proved with Proposals is when they strip down to almost bare bones there is still enough goodness to savor.