The Simple Simon

Neil Simon, the most prolific comic playwright of our day, is a household name. Even those who don't attend theatre know him through movies such as The Odd Couple and Barefoot in the Park. But few people have heard of Neil's older brother, Danny.

In staging Danny Simon's most successful play, Convertible Girl, Arizona Jewish Theatre Company shows us why.

The "other" Simon, like Neil, began his career writing for such television programs as The Colgate Variety Hour and The Danny Thomas Show. His foray into theatre, however, has proved much less successful.

With a writing style that never rises above the television-sitcom mode, Danny Simon produces a true disappointment in Convertible Girl. He has the audience longing for commercial breaks as he inflates a clever sketch plot into a two-hour yuk fest.

Ron Grossman, a twice-divorced, older Jewish man, is living with a 26-year-old pseudo-Catholic, Christina Fernandez. Christina hopes to marry Grossman, but Grossman always has an excuse why it shouldn't happen. Finally, he tells her that his mother would never allow him to marry a Gentile. Faced with this ultimate obstacle, Christina decides to convert to Judaism. What follows are weeks of difficult lessons in Judaic laws and customs taught by a committed, young, forward-thinking rabbinical student, Jonas Steinberg. The story's climax has Christina sitting before a board of three rabbis to be drilled on her knowledge of the Judaic faith.

This one gag is the entire basis for the show. Simon neglects to develop the characters or to explore how core beliefs are formed or why they change--or what Christina might gain spiritually by such a conversion. Steinberg tells Christina, "I'm more concerned that you grasp the full significance of our customs and traditions."

We never find out if she does, nor are we shown why these customs and traditions are significant.

Though there are humorous moments in this play, they are usually contrived. Christina continually employs double-entendre mispronunciations of Jewish words and phrases. A rabbi puts lengthy pauses between every phrase of his dialogue, leaving the audience to wonder if the actor truly knows what line comes next.

In working with this flawed script, director Peter J. Hill--arguably the busiest person in Valley theatre--loses control of the production. The show starts with some nice physical comedy, but plods after that with slow entrances, dragged deliveries, forced performances and needless pauses for laughs.

As Christina, Alejandra Garcia screams out her lines with the subtlety of a Wagnerian opera singer. She never succeeds in becoming the audience's darling.

Valley favorite Ben Tyler is sterile as the two-time loser Ron Grossman. Tyler, usually the highlight of local productions, seems to be on autopilot. He never gives his character the depth we must see to understand why Christina is willing to go through the rigors of conversion to marry him.

Jonas Steinberg, the audience favorite, is charmingly played by Michael Tassoni. Tassoni gives Steinberg a sincerity that is lacking elsewhere. Ifound myself hoping that the show's inevitable happy ending would revolve around Steinberg, as he was the only character onstage I cared about.

Mel Reid delivers the play's funniest scene as he portrays a slightly dense Mormon delivery man who is asked to break certain of the Sabbath laws.

If television sitcoms are your entertainment ofchoice, then Convertible Girl is for you. If you arelooking for the intellectual wit and stimulation ofone of Neil Simon's classic comedies, stay home and rent a video.--Gerald Thomson

Arizona Jewish Theatre Company's production of Convertible Girl continues through Sunday, January 14, in Stage West at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe.