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'I Ought to Be in Pictures' at Act II Playhouse: Three actors make a Neil Simon rarity poignant, lovable

Stellar acting in this seldom-performed play in Ambler makes for a poignant experience.

Jessica Riloff and Tracie Higgins in Neil Simon’s “I Ought to Be in Pictures,” through March 31 at Act II Playhouse in Ambler.
Jessica Riloff and Tracie Higgins in Neil Simon’s “I Ought to Be in Pictures,” through March 31 at Act II Playhouse in Ambler.Read moreBill D'Agostino

An intruder bursts onto the scene and forces everyone to face the truth. This tired plot device is the seed of I Ought to Be in Pictures by Neil Simon, running through March 31 at Act II Playhouse in Ambler. The work is seldom performed, but stellar acting from director Tom Teti's three-member cast turns it into a poignant experience.

Libby, 19, arrives unexpectedly. Her father, Herb, abandoned the family in Brooklyn 16 years ago and resettled in Hollywood, where he became a screenwriter. Cheeky Libby says, "You owe me," and she wants Herb to give her entrée into Hollywood movies.

But Libby takes one look at her father's drab apartment (set design by Parris Bradley) and knows he's not the Hollywood big shot she imagined him to be. No problem. It turns out that what Libby truly wants is to make a connection with the father she never knew.

It is not a stretch to imagine Simon pouring a lot of himself into Herb. As of writing I Ought to Be in Pictures, Simon, too, was in transition. During the '60s he wrote such sparkling comedies as The Odd Couple that were both sad and super-funny. In the '80s, with plays like Biloxi Blues and Lost in Yonkers, his work became more dramatic and semi-autobiographical, the wit more muted.

With I Ought To Be In Pictures (1980), you see this transition in the making. In all his work, Simon offers few big ideas of any sort. At heart, he is a believer in traditional values, explored through the comical suffering of characters who cannot match up to their envisioned ideals.

You believe the character of Libby, a child injured by a father's neglect. Jessica Riloff makes you love her. Sporting a Brooklyn accent, full of animated expression and movement, she gives us a Libby whose vulnerability and kooky, questing presence are joys to watch.

But the two other characters strain credulity. You understand Herb has big-time commitment issues, but why did he abandon his Brooklyn family? (The reasons he gives Libby are lame.) Meanwhile, his girlfriend, Steffy, is too good, too kind, patient, and intelligent, to be true. So, what is a woman like Steffy doing with a loser like Herb?

But the Act II production succeeds anyway, because the actors are so engaging that you do not demand answers to your own sensible questions. Three-time Barrymore winner Tony Braithwaite sweeps you up into Herb's floundering world of ever-changing moods. Tracie Higgins makes Steffy so likable you forget that the character is more plot necessity than person. Yet the ending satisfies, with the characters looking forward even if their issues remain unresolved.