Some of Neil Simon’s plays still sparkle — and they will for generations to come.
“The Star-Spangled Girl” is not one of those plays.
At its best, this Good Company Players production at the 2nd Space Theatre offers a few amiable moments and amusing one-liners. At worst, it’s lackluster in terms of laughs, dated in terms of its humor and — to be blunt — eye-rollingly sexist, at least by today’s standards.
Here’s the setup: Andy (Anthony teNyenhuis) publishes a protest magazine in San Francisco. He runs the business side of things while his roommate, Norman (Joseph Ham, who alternates the role with Aaron Gomes), is the writing talent. When Sophie (Paige Tucker), a Midwest “girl” (this is, alas, a world in which all women are “girls”), moves next door, Norman instantly falls for her.
That’s when things get weird.
It quickly becomes apparent that Norman’s adoration isn’t so much love as compulsion. There’s a thin line between quirky romantic obsession and stalkerism worthy of a restraining order. In his attentions to Sophie, poor Norman quickly hops over it. (And he takes more than a few steps past that line. We aren’t even talking within walking distance of that line. Think of it more in terms of going to the nearest international airport, hopping on a plane and flying half a day away from it.) I knew we were in for trouble when Norman bluntly tells Sophie, “A girl who looks like you shouldn’t be allowed to walk the streets.”
It isn’t just the comments, either. Norman does some pretty creepy things, too. (Isn’t it cute when your next-door neighbor breaks in?)
I guess you could take an anthropological approach and view it through a “Mad Men”-style 1960s lens. That exercise is made brisk and fun by David Pierce’s groovy set, Evan Commins’ Flower Power-tinged lighting design and Marie Q. Kramer’s psychedelic costumes. Simon’s script does seem harmless and containable in a time-capsule way — something we can view at a safe enough distance.
But the cringeworthy moments just keep coming. The race for creepiest character becomes a battle between Norman, the early front-runner, and Andy, who piles on the sexist behavior in the second act. (About the time he starts ordering Sophie to dust his apartment and lick his stamps, I think he pulls ahead.)
The cast is valiant in its energy and commitment to the characters, which is a high point of J. Daniel Herring’s direction. teNyenhuis brings a smooth likability to Andy, and Ham gives it his skittish all as Norman. Tucker puts a wry spin on her turn as Sophie, almost — but not quite — suggesting that her character pines for the #metoo movement to come along.
But it’s a lot of work for not much payoff. This “Star” might have burned reasonably bright in 1966. Now it’s more like a comic black hole.
(Post updated March 23 to credit Marie Q. Kramer as costume designer.)
“The Star-Spangled Girl,” through April 22, 2nd Space Theatre, 928 E. Olive Ave., Fresno. Tickets are $20 general, $17 students and seniors, $12 student rush.
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