Neil Simon has always laced his plays with aspects of his own life and, at age 75, he takes on mortality -- specifically the mortality of a creative writer -- in "Rose and Walsh."
In the world premiere of his 33rd play, now at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, Simon examines death, and if the subject might not be hilarious at first blush, trust Simon to make the shuffling off the mortal coil an entertaining experience.
The title characters are Rose Steiner, a legendary writer, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and a self-described "Jewess from Atlanta" (that's the play's only Jewish reference, so it's better to get it in up front), and Walsh McLaren, a "Mick from Hoboken" and the master of the hard-boiled mystery novel.
The pair has been stormy and profligate lovers and political leftists for decades, and if that description brings to mind Lillian Hellman and Dashiel Hammett, you're in the right ballpark. (Hellman, who died in 1984, is currently also recreated on Broadway in "Imaginary Friends," focusing on her bitter rivalry with writer Mary McCarthy.)
There is one damper on their relationship: the fact that Walsh died five years ago, but continues to visit Rose, in her mind and at her East Hampton cottage; a more acerbic ghost would be hard to find, even in the vicinity of New York.
Rose, in her mid-60s, is suffering from a massive case of failing creative juices, eyesight and bank balance, but Walsh, during his frequent nocturnal visits, suggests a remedy, at least for the last problem.
Dust off a manuscript left unfinished at his death, write the last 40 pages, and make a killing in the book market.
Rose can't do the job herself, but Walsh suggests Clancy, a deservedly obscure, one-book author ("Die in Pieces") as the -- ahem -- ghost writer.
Rounding out the quartet is Rose's young companion, Arlene, who has her own unfinished confrontation with Rose, and if you think that the reserved Arlene and the uncouth Casey are going to fall in love, score one for your perceptiveness.
"Rose and Walsh" is not prime Simon (and he must be sick and tired of hearing that comparison). The play's beginning is rather slow, the ending a bit soggy, and, given that Simon kept rewriting scenes up to curtain time, the actors stumble occasionally.
That said, Simon not in top form is probably still the best American playwright-craftsman around. He handles so devastating an experience as the loss of a cherished lifetime companion with empathy and considerable wit, and applies the same qualities to a mother-daughter relationship and, of course, the tribulations of a blocked writer.
While the play is hardly a sidesplitter, there are some fine comedic bits in the fractured conversation between Rose and Walsh, while Clancy and Arlene can neither hear nor see the ghost.
In the single funniest scene, Walsh reports on the wedding up yonder of Charles Dickens, with a full complement of 19th century novelists in attendance.
Credit foremost the work of two of our most skillful senior actors, Jane Alexander as Rose and Len Cariou as Walsh, playing off each other like Serena and Venus Williams in a doubles match. That's tough competition for Marin Hinkle as Arlene and David Aaron Baker as Clancy, but they more than hold their own, under the direction of David Esbjornson.
"Rose and Walsh" runs through March 22 at the Geffen Playhouse, 10866 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. For tickets, call (310) 208-5454, or visit www.geffenplayhouse.com .