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LIGHTNING REVIEW: 'Proposals' gives patrons enjoyable Poconos vacation

'Proposals' features Grayson Powell, Allen Law, Maddie Franke, Katie Barton Hope and Brendan Malafronte. [Scott Treadway/TREADSHOTS] 'Proposals' features Grayson Powell, Allen Law, Maddie Franke, Katie Barton Hope and Brendan Malafronte. [Scott Treadway/TREADSHOTS]

A fiancé, an ex-wife and a deserted housekeeper are each given the chance to change their circumstances in “Proposals,” the latest production by the Flat Rock Playhouse.

One of Neil Simon’s lesser known plays, the dramatic comedy set in the summer of 1953 explores the social dynamics of a family struggling to find peace before it’s too late.
Director Lisa K. Bryant largely succeeds with a script that’s both hilarious and sentimental, a combination Simon favored over his long award-winning career. This, his 30th play, is no experimental piece. The late playwright’s tried-and-true formula of clever quips, rapid-fire retorts, unique characters and tragedy as fodder for humor is well show-cased. Bryant hits the laughter cues early and often, and though the light-handling of true pain feels a bit hollow, giving the show a sitcom vibe, the result is an uplifting and exceedingly clever show. Which was, perhaps, exactly Neil Simon’s intent.
The set, another beautiful work of art audiences have come to expect of the Playhouse, is no joke. The two-story masterpiece of an aging lake house fights any feelings of flippancy. Rustic, with muted tones, the sloping front porch and upstairs balcony sit opposite a realistic forest and beautiful lake backdrop that takes the audience to a peaceful retreat in the Poconos, making the chaos that ensues all the more absurd. Dead leaves and pine needles detail a crevice in the roof while young couples squabble over the appropriateness of poking their beloved with a stick.
Narrating the story is Clemma, the housemaid played by Thursday Farrar. Almost part of the Hines family herself, Clemma relates from memory the holiday marred by unexpected guests and bad news. Farrar easily engages listeners with her mannerisms and colloquial sayings, using heartfelt sighs and bubbly laughs to instantly win the crowd’s goodwill. Lighting cues help signal the end of Clemm’s monologues, eliminating any confusion between present day and all those years ago.
Farrar has chemistry, as well, with her castmates, which isn’t the case for every actor on stage. While Vinnie, played by Brendan Malafronte, brings energy and ease to every scene he inhabits, Katie Barton (daughter of the Hines family) appears stronger in some interactions than others. Barton skillfully portrays a young woman with spunk and individuality, especially when riffing with Allen Law, playing her fiancé’s friend Ray. Ray and Josie Hines hardly breathe while cutting each other off, arguing, and even flirting. Yet, when Josie and her mother, played by the talented Paige Posey, are left alone the pace falls flat.
Posey wasn’t handed as clearly defined a character as others Neil Simon created. Calm and dignified, with hidden motives only revealed near the end, Posey’s Annie Robbins struggles to stand out in a colorful cast. Whether due to Simon’s tendency to write characters without many layers, Posey’s navigation of now having an audience’s reactions, or the unfortunate trope of the “discarded” ex-wife, theater goers should look forward to the role becoming noteworthy. Paige Posey is just settling in.
As is the rest of the cast. Opening night jitters are common, and tend to alter the effect achieved through long, hard-worked rehearsals. The pace barrels forward, sometimes a bit too quickly for clever jokes and meaningful moments to add weight to the performance. Cast members occasionally speak through a big laugh, losing witty dialogue along the way. Tender lines and silences full of emotion are not always given the space to settle in, leaving a vague feeling of something missed.
Small sticks in light of the incredible talent and devotion displayed by the entire cast, director, and every hand that helped turn an empty stage into a true retreat from daily life. Neil Simon disliked involving politics in his work. He excelled instead at finding the funny in the frightening, and the humor in human strife. In this spirit, the Flat Rock Playhouse offers the audience a vacation to the Poconos as well, with much more success than the poor characters of “Proposals.”