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There is more to Neil Simon’s Proposals than mere craft; the evening is impossible to discuss without using such adjectives as “melancholy,” “autumnal,” and “Chekhovian” for starters, which suggests the flexing of new muscles for Broadway’s most reliable comic playwright. But before we dismiss craft as “mere” and somehow disreputable, let’s genuflect briefly before it.

Mastery of technique and skill with the basic instruments of dramaturgy are not as much in evidence these days as they were when Simon was a pup, cutting his teeth on scripts for Sid Caesar and developing his reputation as a gagmeister. Comic playwrights of the current era tend to be celebrated more for their verbal dexterity or thematic nimbleness than for their deftness as dramatists. Simon is a past master at making plays work as plays. Ask Tom Stoppard to find humor in a situation and he’ll weave breathtaking paragraphs of puns around it. Ask the same of Simon and he’ll reduce the situation to essentials that he can then transmute into punch lines. The notion that he’s compulsive when it comes to joke telling is entirely mistaken. What he is is efficient—unwilling to let a line sit idle when it could be engaged in the business of entertaining an audience.

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Take the economy of his work in Sweet Charity, a show that has a sort of stripped-to-essentials nature to begin with. Most people think of musical-comedy librettos as filler between numbers—dialogue that allows costume changes and gives dancers a chance to breathe. But in Charity, which was punched up by Bob Fosse until every head-snap mattered deeply, the performers could barely greet each other without getting guffaws. Simon set up a rhythm that was as hypnotic as anything composer Cy Coleman came up with—joke, joke, song, joke, joke, song, joke joke, song, practically all night long. And with nearly every sentence either a setup or a punch line, it was soon the audience that required time to inhale and the songs that let them do so. There simply weren’t pauses, except those inserted by Fosse in the interest of letting all catch their collective breath.

In Proposals, Simon is working in a more ruminative vein, so there are pauses. In fact, director Joe Mantello begins with one, having a musing, silent performer enter from the rear of a stage crowded with trees and allowing her to amble to the footlights accompanied by wistful clarinet noodling. The mood is quiet, the lighting dappled, the woods almost sublimely comforting.

Still, even with a studied languidness established as the order of the day, there is efficiency in the phrasing pretty much as soon as there is phrasing. Early in the proceedings, for instance, the playwright needs to brush in some exposition regarding the man whose summer house in the Poconos we’re visiting. Burt Hines (Dick Latessa) is a divorced seller of TV sets who has come to this isolated spot with his daughter and the family’s longtime maid to recuperate from a heart attack. Other authors might slip those details in between jokes. Simon gets laughs for the divorce, the selling, the TV sets, the isolation, the daughter, the family, the maid, the long time, and the heart attack.

And he’s just warming up. The belly laughs don’t begin until Burt’s sharp-tongued ex-wife, the maid’s long-absent husband, and the daughter’s three differently boneheaded boyfriends (one of them with a new girlfriend in tow) show up for lunch and recriminations. It’s the recriminations that give the play what heft it has. Nothing Sophoclean, mind, but for situation-based comedy, Burt’s failing health, the anger his daughter Josie (pert Suzanne Cryer) feels toward his ex-wife (Kelly Bishop doing a drop-dead Ethel Merman impersonation), the estrangement between their maid and her long-absent husband (luminous L. Scott Caldwell and salt-of-the-earth Mel Winkler), and the tensions between Josie’s fiancé (Reg Rogers as a hilarious human slouch) and his best friend Ray (Matt Letscher in lovesick overdrive) all amount to fairly serious emotional crises.

Autumnal overtones deepen in the second act to the point that every time two characters are left alone onstage there’s an epiphany of sorts, complete with a welling up of tears in someone’s eyes. Mother and daughter, husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend, rival and rival, even bimbo and himbo.

Which is not to suggest that Simon has gone entirely Chekhovian on his fans, only that he’s allowing serious subtexts more weight than he did in the plays preceding his autobiographical “BB” trilogy (and Lost in Yonkers). A little too much weight, actually, in the final half hour of Proposals, when a few too many characters wrap all their concerns up in neat phrases. Real life (and current dramatic fashion) would seem to suggest that a searching look into one another’s eyes is more appropriate, which is probably why the author is reportedly still doing rewrites.

Still, folks seeking nothing more than froth can rest assured that Simon’s not yet above engaging in comic riffing just for the fun of it, as in the opening scene of Act 2. That’s when a corker of a conversation about shark-fishing morphs into an exercise in freestyle verbal gymnastics as a character who ought to be tongue-tied (“sometimes I use the wrong word knowledgingly”) just lets his thoughts rip.

His name is Vinnie, and his style is as foreign to the play as his thinking is to the other characters, but boy is he a fresh of breath air. If Burt and his well-heeled, white-bread family can be said to be doing sitcom Chekhov, then Vinnie (Peter Rini) has wandered in from some odd hybrid of GoodFellas and comedy of manners, spouting dialogue so outlandish (“it was like ancient Rome, a fight between two gladiolas”) it can’t help rendering the other characters momentarily speechless. He’s a Mr. Malaprop as that character might be interpreted by, say, Tony Danza, and so that he won’t be lonely, Simon has thoughtfully provided him with an equally out-of-place kindred spirit named Sammii (played as a cross between Melanie Griffith and Sandra Dee by Katie Finneran). Never mind that they’re throwbacks to an earlier Simon; they’re flat-out hilarious, and Mantello’s staging integrates them into the proceedings well enough that, as Vinnie says of the gold chain around his neck, “the links are intrereptable to the naked eye.”

John Lee Beatty’s woodsy setting, with its multifaceted, revolving house, is a welcome departure from the interiors that audiences have come to associate with Simonized characters. Jane Greenwood’s fish-out-of-water costumes make everyone look thoroughly uncomfortable as they arrive in the Poconos and increasingly at home thereafter. And Brian MacDevitt’s soft, atmospheric lighting contributes mightily to the sense of melancholy that gathers in a second act predicated on the knowledge that Burt’s time is running out and therefore laced with discussions of death and resurrection.

The question remains whether the medium of situation comedy is really suited to such discussions, but you can hardly blame Simon for approaching them in the style he knows best. If we grant less mainstream writers, from Nicky Silver to Mac Wellman, the latitude to take on topics like AIDS and racism in their dark, absurdist comedies, then it’s only fair to grant Simon his explorations of mortality and familial tensions in his more conventional ones. It is often argued that The Odd Couple has as much to say about contemporary marriage as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And while no one’s going to suggest that Proposals ranks with either of those masterworks, it is, in its breezy, touching, often uproarious way, fundamentally reassuring, both about its author and about the issues he holds dear.CP