As I was sitting at South Park Theatre reviewing its production of Ellen Simon's Moonlight & Valentino, I kept coming back to the question "Why?"
Not "why?" as in "Why do I review theater?" but "Why this particular play? When there's so much great theater out there, why this?"
Moonlight & Valentino concerns a woman whose husband has just died in a traffic accident. Her best friend, her sister and her ex-stepmother show up offering time-tested grieving tips and supportive shoulders to cry on.
Somewhere in the play's background, there's an interesting idea about how women have always turned to other women for emotional support. But that slender thought is buried under Simon's avalanche of flat, monotonous writing. These are characters who talk at rather than to each other, and I wonder why Simon doesn't realize that her audience reaches the play's emotional ending long before her characters do. Given that we know exactly what's going to happen, it's unsporting of Simon to litter the path with endless palaver.
Which reminds me that theater isn't, or shouldn't be, people just sitting in furniture and talking for two hours. We need action! As they'll tell you in any drama school, theater is about objectives, obstacles and conflict. But in Moonlight & Valentino, we get four women banging on about the same stuff over and over. "I can't go on." "Yes, you can." "No, I can't." "You can." "Can't." "Can." "You're right!"
I've just saved you two hours.
I give credit to director Jen James, who keeps moving her cast around the stage like a meth-fueled puppet master. Perhaps realizing the static nature of the script, she refuses to allow anyone to sit in the same place for longer than two minutes. If these four actresses — Kathleen Caliendo, Adrienne Fischer, Katy Grant and Heather Irwin — get paid per mile, they'll be able to retire. Each woman certainly does a lot of work trying to provide immediacy to the production, but Moonlight remains a tepid, wet blanket from start to finish.
So why? Why did anyone read this relentlessly stagnant script and decide to stage it? Why has any theater company ever performed it?
A trip to the Internet seemed called for … which only added to my confusion. Moonlight & Valentino was actually made into a poorly received film in 1995. Why did anyone think such a talky play could translate to the screen?
And then, finally, I stumbled across a piece of information which answered all of my questions: The writer, Ellen Simon, is the daughter of Neil Simon.
Moonlight & Valentino might not be a good example of how theater works, but it's an excellent demonstration of how show business functions.