Making people laugh is the most difficult of the theatrical arts. And no contemporary American playwright does it better than Neil Simon. The Playbill biographical notes for Mr. Simon's "I Ought to Be in Pictures" remind us that he "has been associated with more Broadway successes than any other playwright of the past 20 years"; has written 16 Broadway shows since "Come Blow Your Horn" in 1961; and once had four plays running simultaneously in New York -- a feat that has not been matched since then. And, of course, there are his contributions to movies and television.
The new Simon comedy at the O'Neill Theatre concerns a father-daughter reunion. Herb (Mr. Leibman), a TV scriptwriter, walked out on his wife and family in Brooklyn 16 years ago and emigrated to Hollywood, where he has met with varied success.
Into his forlornly tacky dwelling bursts Libby (Dinah Manoff), Ron's 19 -year-old daughter, with a pack on her back, a head full of notions, and a determination to bridge the familial gap. Libby is streetwise, precocious -- and disarmingly naive. She can fix a car, cook, and do interior decortating. Herb's digs undergo an exotic tranformation between Acts I and II.
Libby's ostensible purpose for visiting Hollywood is to parlay her nonexistent acting experience into a movie or TV career (with Herb's help). She is like the sister recently described by a Johnny Carson comedian: She wants to be anything as long as it's famous. But all this is really a pretext to conceal the tough-spoken little person's yearning for a paternal affection she has never known.
Mr. Simon develops this often prickly relationship with the comic facility one has come to expect of him. But "I Ought to Be in Pictures" balances the wisecracks, wry cracks, and furious repartee with a touching tenderness. MR. Leibman's skidding writer, fighting to hide his desperation, shares his general mussiness -- not to mention his baseball cap and obsession -- with an earlier Simon character, Felix Madison, the rumpled half of "The Odd Couple.
The winning comedy was directed by Herbert Ross, amusingly designed by David Jenkins (scenery) and Nancy Potts (costumes), with lighting by Tharon Musser.