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A Simon Screw Job

The Star-Spangled Girl at Lehman Hall Fridays and Saturdaays

By Michael Sragow

THE STAR-SPANGLED GIRL, is one of the most forgettable plays I've ever seen. A Neil Simon comedy, it turns on the ambivalent feelings of an All-American Southern belle and Olympic swimmer towards two radical Dartmouth grads who put out a leftist political quarterly from their next-door living room. Sophie Rauschmeier is her (unlikely) name; she loathes Normal Cornell, the sexually repressed but industrious writer of the pair of roommates, who is unfortunately smitten by her looks (and smell). As the disstrous outcome of Norman's amorous gestures, Sophie loses her job at a YMCA swimming pool, and actually goes to work for the magazine--falling in love with Andy Hobart, the more conventionally attractive radical, not only Norman's publisher but his best friend. En route to the final resolution, Norman becomes paranoid and Andy embittered, through Sophie remains throughout just plain Sophie.

Most of the characters are hysterical too much of the time for anything meaningfully comic to occur. It's like a prolonged night-club sketch. Andy and Norman know how to wisecrack like second-rate Henny Youngmans, and use this to put Sophie at a disadvantage. She can only spout whatever middle-Americanisms that the New York Jewish quipster-author felt right for the moment. I would for the life of me like to recount some dialogue for the record, but it is all so inert, so clearly the work of a hack intent on a string of easy laughs without sustained character, that it slips through the memory as swiftly as my last trip to the supermarket. (There is one joke about cherry pie or apple pie or something being as American as blueberry pie or something else.)

THE PRODUCTION isn't any better than the written material. The wooden panelling makes the thrust set look more opulent than I'd think even two Dartmouth boys could afford, and the Lehman Hall lighting is blindingly dead-on.

In such circumstances, and with such a play, I still expect more from performers than what the Harvard Yard Palyers give out. Bernard Holmberg's Andy is not natively charming or self-aware enough to express put-on charm, coming off more as a preppie make-out artist, though the essential sanity of his role makes Holmberg look good against the other two nincompoops. Stephen Benson's Norman isn't comically awkward, just awkward; to be interested in him at all as a character we'd have to see his writing, and Benson can't move well enough to compensate the playwright's thinness. Worst of all is Caria Berg's strident Sophie Rauschmeier, with a banshee voice and a great stone face that moves in clicned exaggerations when it does move.

The whole is directed by Josh Rubins in a junior-grade imitation of cheapjack Broadway commercial. His actors bounce over furniture and up the stairs whenever possible; the rest of their movements are entrances ad exits.

If the play was at all accurate, I probably would have fallen for it: both the sweating-out work processes of a small and hungry magazine, and the heart-churning chase after a cold-hearted Golden Girl are terribly typical situations. If the performance was at all presentable, I undoubtedly would have applauded: I'm all for local theater and struggling young talent.

Unfortunately, The Star-Spangled Girl at Lehman Hall smacks of the kiddie kind of feeling expressed by Gene Kelly in Summer Stock when he called the boys and girls together and said: "Well, we've got a burn...let's put on a show!"

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