Neil Simon’s “I Ought To Be in Pictures” has for good reason always been considered one of the comedy master’s lesser works.
The perfunctory, lukewarm melodrama has a simple, familiar plot that Simon uses to push around three amiable, inoffensive characters. There’s a struggling middle-aged screenwriter named Herb, who doesn’t really have it any more so he goes to the track instead of script meetings. Herb has a perfectly nice girlfriend, Steffy, whom he doesn’t deserve, but she sticks with him anyway. Herb also has a nice daughter he doesn’t know, who shows up to introduce him to the joys of delayed parenthood.
There are “Sesame Street” episodes in which the stakes are higher and the conflict greater.
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Set in the late 1970s, the story takes place in Herb Tucker’s junky little West Hollywood home, where Herb and Steffy (a successful makeup artist) keep company a couple of times a week. In those roles, Eric Wheeler and Natasha Hause make the production more watchable and agreeable than it has any right to be.
Simon doesn’t scratch the surface of either character, but Wheeler gets inside Herb a little bit over the course of the two acts. Hause does more with even less, giving Steffy a gracious sparkle and showing sharp, effortless timing throughout.
Herb’s estranged 19-year-old-daughter, Libby, kick-starts the story by dropping in unannounced from Brooklyn. Libby is also a thinly drawn character, written as initially brusque and superficially confident; she naturally softens as the play progresses. She gets most of the punch lines since she’s a precocious teenager angry at her dad for abandoning the family 16 years ago, but still wants his love (and an explanation). Fiona Ross was solid in the performance I saw. (Kate Brugger is also cast as Libby.)
Director Bill Zarriello stuffs the blackouts with ’70s pop music but doesn’t dig up much in the way emotional connections among the characters.
The play’s lack of inspiration recalls the famous line by New York Times theater critic Walter Kerr about the Simon play “The Star Spangled Girl”: “Neil Simon didn’t have an idea for a play this year, but he wrote one anyway.”
This being Simon there are a few laughs, but the production won’t linger in your memory.
I Ought To Be in Pictures
What: Sacramento Theatre Company presents a work by Neil Simon with Eric Wheeler, Natasha Hause, Fiona Ross and Kate Brugger.
Where: STC’s Pollock Stage, 1419 H St.
When: 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Dec. 11
Information: 916-443- 6722; www.sactheatre.org
Time: Two hours and 10 minutes including one intermission