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I Ought to Be In Pictures

In Neil Simon's rarely revived comedy drama, Hollywood writer Herb Tucker is confronted with the 19-year-old daughter he has not seen in 16 years who wants to be in pictures.

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Makenzie Morgan Gomez, Pamela Sabaugh and Chris Thorn in a scene from Theater Breaking Through Barriers’ production of Neil Simon’s “I Ought to Be In Pictures” at Theatre Row (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

[avatar user=”Victor Gluck” size=”96″ align=”left”] Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief[/avatar]

Theater Breaking Through Barriers has chosen to revive Neil Simon’s rarely seen 1980 Broadway play, I Ought to Be In Pictures, not seen in New York in the last 44 years. (The film with Walter Matthau and Ann-Margret was released in 1982.) TBTB whose mission is dedicated to advancing and celebrating the work of professional artists with disabilities has incorporated such actors into this three character play.

Once the most prolific and produced American playwright, Neil Simon’s plays have gone into somewhat of an eclipse since his passing in 2018, with most of the revivals in recent years either poorly cast or ineptly directed. (Not everyone is director Mike Nichols or Gene Saks responsible for 13 of Simon’s megahits.) The problem with I Ought to Be in Pictures is that it is neither funny enough to be a comedy nor deep enough to be a character drama. It seems to have been a departure for Simon at the time. The 1980 text has gotten somewhat dated with references to stars of that era but no attempt has been made to update it. While most of Simon’s comedy is based on opposites attracting, here the two main characters are so similar in character and personality that they could be chips off the old block: in fact they are father and daughter.

Makenzie Morgan Gomez and Chris Thorn in a scene from Theater Breaking Through Barriers’ production of Neil Simon’s “I Ought to Be In Pictures” at Theatre Row (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Living in Hollywood and working as a screenwriter, Herb Tucker is awoken one spring morning by a surprise visit from Libby, his 19-year-old daughter from New York he hasn’t seen since his New York divorce 16 years ago. She has come to California ostensibly to break into the movies and hopes to use her father’s contacts. However, it is obvious that she wants to get to know the father she doesn’t remember, having last seen him when she was three. While she is feisty, adventurous and determined, he is grumpy, gruff and suffering from writer’s block. She is also quite eccentric communing with her dead grandmother buried in New York City these last six years who gives her advice on a daily basis. Herb has not been in touch with ex-wife Blanche or his children in all these years as she has kept them at arm’s length, tearing up his letters and refusing to let him speak to them on the phone.

They do have the same sense of humor and the same interests – but have a lot of catching up to do. Herb also has a girlfriend Steffy, a divorced make-up artist at Columbia Studios who earns more that he does. They get along on all levels, but after two years of seeing each other every Tuesday she wants to take their relationship to the next level. She has a bigger house than he and has an extra room he can use as an office. Can he get past his problems with commitment to make a move? Suddenly, for the first time he is worried about where his daughter is at 1 AM in the morning even though at 19 with his Mustang, and her New York sophistication, she should be able to cope for herself.

Makenzie Morgan Gomez and Pamela Sabaugh in a scene from Theater Breaking Through Barriers’ production of Neil Simon’s “I Ought to Be In Pictures” at Theatre Row (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

The play’s two acts are quite different. The two long scenes of Act I which take place on the same day are slow and methodical, introducing the characters and letting us get to know them since they have so much to catch up on. The second act with four short scenes moves more quickly covering more time and having more events happen. The TBTB production now uses captions cleverly incorporated in the set to make the show more accessible to the hearing impaired. However, if you are not in that category you may find yourself reading the supertitles rather than listening which is more than a little distracting.

Director Nicholas Viselli has done well with the characterizations but is unable to resolve the thinness of the backstories which are not fleshed out by the script. The shallow set which has most of its furniture and appliances lined up across the stage makes some of the blocking awkward and repetitious. Making her Off Broadway debut as Libby in the role that won Dinah Manhoff the Tony Award, Makenzie Morgan Gomez is spunky and quick with the retort. She has a breezy, wise stage presence. Her use of a wheelchair and a cane is no problem to the character but when she says that she has hiked and hitched her way across half of America one wonders if this is realistic. And today in 2024 do 19-year-old women risk hitching alone that distance?

Pamela Sabaugh and Chris Thorn in a scene from Theater Breaking Through Barriers’ production of Neil Simon’s “I Ought to Be In Pictures” at Theatre Row (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Chris Thorn does well with Herb’s gruff exterior and distant wise-cracking personality. He does equally as he melts into a caring father. However, we learn little about him, even to the genre of screenplays he writes and what he likes aside from baseball and the races, both of which hobbies are left undefined. As Steffy, Pamela Sabaugh is warm and sympathetic, the antithesis of Herb when we first meet him. However, Simon has not told us what she sees in Herb or what he sees in her.

Bert Scott’s 1980’s Hollywood apartment is appropriately shabby and includes Paul Birtwistle’s period props. His lighting is not as moody as it might be to differentiate day and night scenes. The costumes by Liv Magaraci are rather bland for the warm Hollywood climate that they talk so much about nor do they specifically define the characters. Eric Nightengale’s well researched sound design includes songs of the period whose titles are stated in the supertitles so that all theatergoers can appreciate them.

Chris Thorn and Makenzie Morgan Gomez in a scene from Theater Breaking Through Barriers’ production of Neil Simon’s “I Ought to Be In Pictures” at Theatre Row (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

While this revival of Neil Simon’s rarely seen I Ought to be in Pictures starts slowly, it picks up in the second act. Ultimately, Nicholas Viselli’s production is entertaining and involving though it has no solutions for the play’s problems. Makenzie Morgan Gomez, Chris Thorn and Pamela Sabaugh are good company as are most Neil Simon characters.

I Ought to Be In Pictures (through May 25, 2024)

Theater Breaking Through Barriers

Theater Row, 410 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, 212-714-2442 x 45 or visit http://www.TBTB.org

Running time: two hours and 20 minutes including one intermission

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About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (990 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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