Arena Dinner Theatre opens its 2018-19 season with the early Neil Simon play, Star-Spangled Girl. Simon wrote the play in 1966 on the heels of two huge Broadway hits, The Odd Couple and Barefoot in the Park. While it didn't become quite the classic of those comedies, Star-Spangled Girl still delivers plenty of laughs.

Two old friends, Andy (Justin Dirig) and Norman (Jordan Plohr) run a subversive political magazine called Fallout out of their run-down duplex in San Francisco. New neighbor Sophie (Rachel Dirig) introduces herself, and it's love at first smell for Norman (ah, pheromones!). The socially backward Norman begins an unhealthy obsession with the hyper-patriotic Bible belt native Sophie. In 1966 his fixation was probably considered comedic and adorable, but in 2018 it's probably considered stalking. Nevertheless, as played by Plohr, Norman is charming and funny, and when Sophie develops a similar pheromonal attraction to Andy, it's a little easier to overlook the problematic nature of Norman breaking into her apartment to mop her floors or cornering her in the closet.

Norman's antics at Sophie's workplace get her fired, and when Norman's depression over his unrequited love renders him unable to write, the pragmatic Andy hires her to work as their secretary/maid. But her main duty is to smile at and be pleasant to Norman, so he can write again. However, Sophie's feelings for Andy threatens to break up the men's friendship and jeopardizes the future of their magazine.

Director Brian Wagner brings out the best in the three actors. Justin Dirig shows off his character acting chops in a series of phone calls in which he uses different accents and voices to throw off his debtors. Rachel Dirig gives Sophie great character growth as she goes from sweet newcomer to justifiably angry recipient of unwanted male advances, to resigned employee in a hostile workplace, to helpless victim of reluctant love. Jordan Plohr makes the neurotic and slightly unbalanced Norman likable and even endearing. All three have excellent comedic timing, and the Dirigs have a natural onstage chemistry befitting that of a real-life married couple.

What makes the story relevant today, besides the ironic juxtaposition of male/female dynamics in 1966 versus today, is the concept of the importance of free speech, acceptance of differing viewpoints, and the media's responsibility to question those in power. The characters find a way to work through their political differences with mutual respect and humor. It's a surprisingly forward-thinking point of view for a 52-year-old play.

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From This Author Jen Poiry

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