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PROTEST AND PATRIOTISM: Elizabeth Brown as Sophie in the title role warns Norman (Benjamin Mains, left) and Andy (MacAdam Smith) to cease and desist from the unwanted amorous advances in Princeton Summer Theater's production of Neil Simon's The Star-Spangled Girl (1966), running for one more weekend, through August 17, at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus.
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Neil Simon Comedy Winds Up Princeton Summer Theater Season

Princeton Summer Theater has been in good hands since late June, staging masterpieces by Oscar Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest) and Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead) and a heart-warming, crowd-pleasing musical by Clark Gesner (You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown). But the talented PST company ventures into less secure territory with its season finale, The Star-Spangled Girl, a seldom-staged 1966 Neil Simon romantic comedy.

It may be true, as legendary Broadway director Harold Prince declared, that "Neil Simon has written more successful plays than anyone since Shakespeare." Indeed, when The Star-Spangled Girl first appeared in 1966, it ran simultaneously on Broadway with no fewer than three other Simon hits (Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple and Sweet Charity), but if even Homer nods and Shakespeare has his clunkers, mustn't Neil Simon too have his off days?

New York Times theater critic Walter Kerr thought so when, reviewing The Star-Spangled Girl's premiere performance, he wrote, "Neil Simon didn't have an idea for a play this year, but he wrote it anyway." Mr. Simon concurred with Mr. Kerr's criticism and stated that he considered The Star Spangled Girl "a failure."

In fact, Mr. Simon does have an idea here: a promising premise involving a duo of young, radical Dartmouth graduates distracted from publishing their protest magazine by the allure of a patriotic, all-American beauty queen who moves in next door.

Noble ideals and intellect clash with sex appeal and romance. Mr. Simon even provides his usual abundance of laugh lines and sharp, clever dialogue, and, although too many of the jokes fall flat, it's a funny play.

What Mr. Simon did not have is sufficient material to stretch this idea over three acts and almost two hours of running time. The characters, often more like cartoon figures than living entities, fail to develop much throughout the evening, and the potentially rich and substantive conflict takes predictable and less-than-interesting turns.

Thirty-seven years after The Star-Spangled Girl's Broadway debut, the three-member PST cast, under the direction of Mount Holyoke junior Jennifer Leahy, has taken up the challenge and strives mightily to turn this "failure" into a success. The good news here is that Ms. Leahy has cast the show intelligently, and the experienced actors warm to their tasks as the evening proceeds.

The first act, before intermission on opening night last Thursday, seemed stiff, with a mostly quiet audience and the lines sounding like comic sound bites for a TV sit-com in need of a laugh track. As the plot and Norman's neurotic, unrequited courtship of Sophie intensified after intermission, however, the dialogue began to sound more like people actually talking to each other. The actors began to settle into their characters, and the dialogue started to bristle and crackle with life and humor.
MacAdam Smith, a recent Drew University graduate, plays the idealistic, dedicated, cynical Andy with focus and conviction. He is especially amusing in his inventive telephone conversations with would-be bill collectors, in the outlandish lengths he goes to appease the amorous landlady and in his struggles to keep Norman (Benjamin Mains) at the typewriter as deadlines approach and Norman's infatuation with Sophie (Elizabeth Brown) increases.

Mr. Mains, a Princeton University sophomore, is mostly credible as the bookish young writer who suddenly becomes obsessed with an Arkansas baton-twirler. Whether preparing to paint love messages on the staircase, or gazing longingly through his telescope to observe Sophie at the bus stop, or on the roof declaring his love for her and playing her voice on his tape recorder – he displays his lovesick passion with spirit and boyish charm.

Ms. Brown, a Westminster Choir College graduate student, does some excellent character work in portraying this wholesome, flag-waving beauty queen, fiancŽe to a U.S. marine, Olympic swimmer and graduate of an Arkansas high school where they sing all four stanzas of "The Star-Spangled Banner" (Did you think there were only three stanzas? Their principal wrote an extra one!). A little more glamour here might be helpful – how about, for the sake of contrast and conflict, exaggerating the make-up and perhaps even a blond wig for this larger-than-life role? – but Ms. Brown successfully creates a sympathetic and three-dimensional figure with a convincing southern accent.

Ms. Leahy keeps the pace moving, especially when the adrenalin kicks in after intermission, and the action flows smoothly and clearly. She injects one ill-advised bit of surrealism, in a first-act political monologue by Andy, into what is otherwise a mostly realistic production, but she does make a wise choice in simplifying a rather odd ending in Mr. Simon's original script.

Ms. Leahy has also designed the bright and functional unit set – the cluttered combined living room and magazine offices of Andy and Norman's San Francisco apartment–with appropriate lighting by Devon Wessman-Smerdon and costumes designed by Jessie Leto.

Though the play does creak a bit under the strains of a thin sit-com script and some dated humor from the politically charged Vietnam War era, Princeton Summer Theater wraps up its 2003 season here with a pleasant evening, lots of laughs and a treat for Neil Simon fans who want to take advantage of this rare opportunity to see The Star-Spangled Girl.

Princeton Summer Theater's production of Neil Simon's "The Star-Spangled Girl" runs for just one more weekend, through August 17, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8pm and a Sunday matinee at 2 pm. Call (609) 258-7062 for reservations and further information.

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