The holiday season was drawing to a close. As anticipated, it was not home for the holidays for our dear friends Sally and Frank, and their two children Ted and Sara, now 17 and 10 respectively. For this intrepid, theater-struck, out-of-town family, the holidays entailed the annual trek down from their home on Prince Edward Island to New York City to see as many shows as possible during their 10-day break. Except for showing up for an obligatory Christmas Day gathering with relatives and assorted others (my wife and I included), it was to be hard-nosed show-going time (with some time out for shopping, of course).

This year the gang had gathered festively around their hotel room phone to say goodbye, and to thank me for my lengthy and detailed missive I had sent ahead on the year’s 10 best plays On and Off-Broadway.

"We couldn’t have done it without your advice," said Sally, her voice full of gratitude. "Of course, we thumbed our noses at `The Lion King’ after you told us those mean press agents weren’t going to let you see the show until January. Even if your opinion isn’t important to them, it is to us, and we do so like to take your advice . . . you know, when we can.

"Well, to tell you the truth we did go by `The Lion King’ box-office," she admitted. "They told us we should buy our tickets now for next Christmas. We’ll think about it. Then the concierge at the hotel said he could get us two seats for $2,000. I thought he was joking, so I said we needed four. Well, guess what? He said it would be $6,000 for four seats together. I asked him if that included plane fare, two weeks at Disney World, and four Lion King tee shirts. He said no, and I said the deal’s off. Let us know what you think after you see it," she concluded, her voice tinged with the disappointment that comes with not being married to a well-to-do oil sheik.

"Anyway, Simon, about your Ten Best Plays of 1997 list: It was very helpful indeed. We knew that you were really anxious for us to see the musical `Titanic,’ but Frank — oh, he’s all right now, nothing broken — he’s just about recovered from that little boating accident last August. You remember when his prized dinghy collided with a 60-foot yawl. We voted against anything that would remind us of a maritime disaster. Instead we decided that, even though it wasn’t on your list, Simon, that Frank and the kids would enjoy the laughs we know we can count on in a Neil Simon play. Well, I counted the laughs — both of them — at `Proposals.’ When it was over, we all commented on how lovely the set was."

"You were probably right to say that `1776′ was not to be missed, but young Ted had just played Thomas Jefferson for 12 performances at our community theater. You see, Simon, Ted got raves and couldn’t be convinced that the Broadway version could possibly be any better. Here’s Ted. He’s dying to say something."

Am I surprised or what when Ted chimes in with, "A couple of my friends have been down about six times already to see `Jekyll and Hyde.’ The newspapers have started calling them `Jekkies.’ Anyway, they made me promise not to miss it. Wasn’t it neat the way the guy who plays Dr. Jekyll changes into Mr. Hyde by throwing his head down so his hair covers his face?"

"I screamed every time he did," shouted Sara, from across the room.

"Simon, I hope you don’t mind that we didn’t get to any of those Off-Broadway favorites of yours, even if four of them made it on to your Ten-Best list," said Frank, apologetically, getting his turn to talk theater. Frank sounded sincere enough when he said, "Sally and I and the kids did consider the subject matter of `Gross Indecency’ — Isn’t that the one about Oscar Wilde on trial for you know what? We also had reservations about that other one you liked, `How I learned to Drive,’ the one you said was about incest. Sally said we couldn’t avoid the facts of life forever, and thought it would be good for us to go see `The Life,’ the big musical about the pimps and prostitutes on 42nd Street before Walt Disney stole their turf. Now I know `The Life’ wasn’t on your Top Ten list, but you have to admit that whatever the show’s shortcomings — like the crummy plot, drab scenery, ugly costumes, and numerous unattractive characters peddling dope and sex — it was not boring."

Frank added that Sara and Sally got into a little tiff over the possibilities

of my recommendations for "Two Pianos Four Hands" and "As Bees in Honey Drown."

"Let me tell it," shouted Sara pulling the phone from her Dad’s hand. "Mom said she wasn’t sure she could take a play about practicing the piano, and then she gave me one of her looks. My feelings were really hurt, so I said I wasn’t sure I could sit though a play about a woman con-artist, and I looked at her real hard."

With that, I could tell that Sally had recovered possession of the phone. "Well, who said we were a perfect family," she laughed, intimating that my enthusiastic reaction to `Jackie,’ might be the result of some temporary brain dysfunction. "I’m sorry, but I was never much of a fan," Sally admitted. "And who ever told her she looked good in a pill box hat? I hope you don’t mind that we decided to skip that one. But thanks for telling us not to miss `Ivanov,’ but for forgetting to tell us that we wouldn’t be able to get seats. To appease my disappointment at not seeing (drool) Kevin Kline, we went to `The Scarlet Pimpernel.’ I know that wasn’t on your list, but I managed to forget all about Kevin watching that tall, handsome Douglas Sills wave his sword and singing cookie-cutter music about something or other in those tight pants."

"Thanks for reminding us about the cut-rate tickets at the TKTS booth at Duffy Square," said young Ted getting another shot at the conversation. "Sara and I convinced Mom and Dad that we didn’t all have to go to the same show. We remembered that you had said that the show about the famous Siamese twins `Side Show’ was really terrific. But you know that Sara is a real Betty Buckley fan. So when she saw that `Triumph of Love’ was on sale she made me go with her to that. Some of it was funny. But I felt she owed me after that. Since I’ve been playing with my dance band, I get a kick out of the pop hits of the 1960s and ’70s. So I convinced Sara that she would like `Street Corner Symphony.’" I could hear Sara from across the room shouting, "What a ripoff. Ted’s group would have put on a better show."

Now it was Sally’s turn to say the last goodbye. "Oh, Simon, I know that you wanted us to see the play that won the Tony, `The Last Night of Ballyhoo,’ but at the last minute I had this urge to see if David Mamet had finally written a play in which you don’t feel like you should start counting the times the characters say that same four-letter word. You know it got a lot of good reviews from other critics. I didn’t see it on your list, but we went to see `The Old Neighborhood’ anyway. The kids thought it sucked, and I can’t really say that Frank and I didn’t squirm during the entire 80 minutes it lasted. But I did think that these three little plays about this guy who returns to the city he grew up in to see his miserable childhood friend, his despondent married sister, and his boring estranged ex-wife has something to say. But all I could think of was how much my feet hurt after a day in the city."

Before wishing my friends all a Happy New Year, I couldn’t help but point out to Sally that, unwittingly, her family had managed not to see a single play on my "Best Plays of 1997" list. They had, instead, chosen the whole slew of those featured on my "Worst" list — a list I had somehow neglected to send them. But did they ever have a good time!

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