It’s difficult for me to get excited about a play whose author, Neil Simon, called it “clearly and simply a failure.”
Yet Andy Sandberg ’05, director and producer of “The Star-Spangled Girl,” clearly has. Unfortunately, his enthusiasm is still not quite enough to make the play a success.
The play takes place in nostalgically shady 1966 San Francisco, in the lousy apartment of precocious writer Norman Cornell (Tim Smith ’05) and his idealist lefty roommate, Andy Hobart (Andy Sandberg ’05). Together the two put out the protest ‘zine “Fallout.” When uber-girl-next-door Sophie Rauschmeyer (Jennifer Thompson ’03) actually does move into the apartment next door, Norman falls in love and begins a campaign to win her over. Desperate to get Norman concentrating on the magazine again, Andy promises to keep him away from irritated Sophie if she agrees to be nice to Norman. The deal works until Sophie announces that she, too, has a crush — on Andy.
Simon was right about his play, unfortunately. It’s mostly vague and unoriginal, and in some parts it’s just plain weird. Whether or not it was the case in 1967 when Simon published it, Norman’s pursuit of Sophie today would be called stalking and sexual assault — but the play doesn’t see it that way. When Sophie calls Norman “mentally warped,” it’s meant to be funny, but it’s not so much. The fact that Sophie is a tough customer who can give as good as she gets is only somewhat comforting.
For another thing, while the play picks up speed and life when its attention moves to Andy and Sophie’s relationship, their political differences — supposedly a source of conflict — never come into focus. Simon obviously enjoyed thinking of aqua-patriotic-themed insults for Andy to hurl at Sophie — “flag-waving sea urchin” was definitely the best. But her political orientation seems to consist primarily of her engagement to a U.S. Marine. Andy’s fuzzy radicalism is never fleshed out and even its hints are sweetened by his acceptably free-speech-loving claim, “I like almost everything about this country except people who like absolutely everything about this country.”
Simon’s play may be about love and friendship, but it doesn’t really go anywhere with either. Unfortunately, none of the three sincere but unremarkable performances helped. Under Sandberg’s direction, aggressively articulated speeches and occasionally self-conscious posture did not help bring the characters to life.
Of the three, Thompson is most engaging as the self-proclaimed “100 percent physically perfect” fireball Sophie. She also deserves praise for her well-honed and consistent Southern belle accent. Sandberg’s head-scratching befuddlement at his roommate’s craziness is natural and endearing, and Smith’s melodramatic proclamations of love were impressive in scope and volume. But in the third act, when Simon finally settles down to salvage his play with his funny, talky style, none of the actors embrace it. The jokes are there, but the actors rush them.
While all three seem to be having fun with it, “The Star-Spangled Girl” never manages to rise above its cavelike quarters in the basement of Trumbull College.