Neil Simon stands tall in the pantheon of quintessential twentieth century American playwrights, and yet somehow remains largely underrated.
Despite having won dozens of awards over his long career (including the Emmy, the Tony, the Pulitzer Prize, the Mark Twain Prize, and others too numerous to list here, many several times over), Simon is often reflexively denied credit for the amount of character and heart he invested in such works as his Brighton Beach trilogy and Lost in Yonkers.
A lot of theatrical folk with whom I’m acquainted tend to disdain the works of Neil Simon in general, Plaza Suite in particular. It’s light, fluffy, completely inconsequential, and the written material itself is engineered to pull laughs out of an audience with an efficiency that borders on mechanical. Ironically, it is for exactly this reason that I have always admired Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite. To an actor, delivering those lines of dialogue is the easiest laugh I ever got, and as an audience member, the easiest laugh I ever gave. And really, who ever said every play you go to has to change the way you see the world, or take ambitiously experimental risks with the art form? Sometimes we just want a couple of guilt-free yuks. It is therefore unsurprising that Plaza Suite is this season’s Patrons’ Choice winner at the Little Theatre of Norfolk.
It’s a good time to be sure, in the way that a Neil Simon play is pretty much guaranteed to be, although I perhaps enjoyed the performance I saw this past weekend less than did the rest of the audience I saw it with. I suppose one could – just this once – consider me to be tangentially aligned with the high-minded (and perhaps pretentious) sect of committed theatricals in HR for the opinions I’m about to relate, considering just how many laughs Mr. Simon’s dialogue surgically extracted from the audience I accompanied. But I feel I would be doing the community a disservice not to render my honest opinion, so here we go.
Plaza Suite comprises three distinct comedic vignettes, each related to the others in no way except that they all take place in the same suite (number 719) at New York’s famed Plaza hotel. The first scene, “Visitor from Mamaroneck,” concerns a couple, Sam and Karen Nash, who are occupying the rooms while their house is being painted. It also happens to be their twenty-third (or is it their twenty-forth…?) wedding anniversary. The domestic stagnation from which their marriage suffers is at first played for laughs, but quickly delves into the deeper and more personal drama which Mr. Simon often sneaks into his plays, shellacked by a veneer of expertly rendered comedic dialogue.
Speaking of expertly rendered comedic dialogue, Cindy Shea, as the beleaguered wife to Vincent Desanto’s workaholic husband, absolutely shines in this scene. Desanto, a gifted comedic actor in his own right, was – to paraphrase myself from a Facebook comment I made when he announced he’d been cast in this show – likely engineered in a lab for the purposes of doing Neil Simon, and yet Shea manages to outdo even him. That is not to say Desanto is any slouch – he’s funny as all git-out, and the two of them together make the first act of this show an absolute pleasure to absorb.
After the intermission (during which the room is set for the next scene by the hotel’s staff), we see “Visitor from Hollywood.” In this vignette, a now-famous Hollywood producer has rented the room for the purposes of making a deal with a famous director who he hopes will agree to work on his next picture. And while he’s in town he has contacted his high school sweetheart, who he hopes will consent to rekindle old flames. It soon becomes apparent that the both of them want to but know they shouldn’t… but REEEEEALLY want to. It’s the shortest vignette of the three, and for my money the strongest. Rob Fortner and Louise Casini Hollis make a picture of the couple who can’t be together but we really want them to. He’s been around the block and has never been able to keep her off his mind. She settled down early and has never been able to keep him off her mind. Make no mistake: they’re GONNA do it, the only question is when. Fortner’s overtly goal-oriented Hollywood shark and Hollis’s more than willing prey, both portrayed with a beguiling His-Girl-Friday-paced line delivery, ensnare our attention completely. They’re great together. ‘Nuff said.
The third and final vignette of the show, “Visitor from Forest Hills,” is where Mr. Simon, the audience, and I diverge. This vignette is perhaps the most Neil Simon-y thing Neil Simon ever wrote; the lines themselves are laugh-out-loud funny, and laugh uproariously the audience did, despite the performances being the least polished in the show. The occupants of the eponymous suite this time are a husband and wife whose daughter is getting married today at the Plaza hotel… that is if they can coax her out of the bathroom, where she has locked herself in. Ben Jenkins, as the father of the bride, is well-cast, although his performance comes off as somewhat underplayed when juxtaposed with that of Lydia Mugler, who, as the mother of the bride, presents a captivatingly enigmatic portrayal. Her performance here puts one in mind of the Catskill comedians of the early-to-mid twentieth century (from whose work Neil Simon drew much inspiration): expertly rendered material delivered with an apparent (and perhaps calculated) deficit of investment, which somehow – counter-intuitively – doubles the comedic effect. Henny Youngman figured this out sixty years ago, and it’s working for Ms. Mugler now.
Eileen Engel, in her directorial debut at the Little Theatre of Norfolk, blocks her actors well and keeps their delivery crisp.
All of the foregoing elucidated, the show is unfortunately less than the sum of its parts, underserved by its technical aspects. Director Engel had the germ of an entertaining concept for the scenic transitions: the Maid, the Bellhop and the Waiter carry them out, as would happen in a real hotel. There’s a slight problem however in that the second of two transitions happens without an intermission. This roughly minute-and-a-half, during which the audience sit stock-still and silent in their seats, would be much more entertaining if some sort of performance had been made of it, perhaps set to the period music discerningly selected by Sound Designer John Roberts. As is, the prolonged sight of people in costume dutifully and silently moving stuff around saps the captive audience’s energy and handicaps the performers going into the third and final scene.
Regarding the other technical aspects of this production, I feel LTN’s audience could rightly ask for more. The lighting design by BA Ciccolella (Asst. Lighting Designer Nina Martin) is noticeably uneven, with many dark spots in places where actors end up parked for several minutes at a time. Given Ms. Ciccolella’s previous credits and broad professional experience, and the talent demonstrated by Ms. Martin on previous shows, I am tempted to blame LTN’s aging equipment stock or inadequate power supply for the poor quality of lighting on display in their 90th season thus far. Literally everyone else has Source Fours, guys. Have a bake sale and buy a few.
The set, by first-time scenic designer Meg Murray, is bright and colorful and employs the space very well. Mrs. Murray may indeed have a talent for scenic design as well as costumes, which she also provided for this show (as well as countless others). The costumes here are well-done, especially the ladies’ attire in all three vignettes (except for the wedding dress at the climax of the 3rd vignette, which I found to be underwhelming considering how the father of the bride went on about how much he’d paid for it).
Ultimately however, these are mostly minor concerns, and I must therefore defer my opinion to that of the audience with whom I saw the show… they LOOOOVED it. And ultimately, the audience is who Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite is for, not the critic.
The Little Theatre of Norfolk’s Plaza Suite is one of two current productions dedicated to the memory of Kathleen Walden, one of the stalwarts of our local theatre community. The show runs thru 11/27. Fri & Sat 8:00pm, Sun 2:30pm. Tix: $18 Reg; $15 Seniors, Military, Full-time Students; $9 Youth (17 and under). Group rates available. Call (757) 627-8551 or click here to reserve your seats. And of course, let us know your thoughts in the comments!