A soft thud, as of a window shutting by itself in a long-deserted house, is the impression left by Rose’s Dilemma, a play that doesn’t mean anything to anybody and doesn’t reveal any understanding, on its author’s part, of how plays are written. This was always Neil Simon’s weak point: Once a successful constructor of gag routines that could be crammed together to make evenings of theater, he’s never really bothered much about character and action—that is, about human beings and what they do. To that extent, he’s never really been a playwright; his theatrical products deserve a word other than “plays,” maybe “gagpiles.” Simon’s backstage behavior has become public knowledge through a steady series of dismissals from his favor of actors, directors, and producers, climaxing in Mary Tyler Moore’s departure from this production when a bullying letter from the playwright was delivered to her just before a matinee preview.
Leaving was Moore’s wisest act. Thin on gags, and virtually anorexic on every other asset, the script of Rose’s Dilemma contains no viable words except, apparently, the author’s name. The story of a woman writer maximally unlike Lillian Hellman, badgered by her novelist lover’s ghost into flogging some old-age income out of his unfinished book, it will interest only scholars eager to identify Simon’s innumerable borrowings. Patricia Hodges, Moore’s understudy, gives a valiant understudy performance; John Cullum’s second ghost of the season is paler than his first. Only David Aaron Baker, as an amiably loutish ghostwriter, seems to be alive in three dimensions. A real playwright would have known that this script didn’t stand a ghost of a chance.