Friday, January 25, 2013
Theater review: The honeymoon is over in Plaza Suite at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas
Three couples, one hotel room, and a whirlwind of problems.
DALLAS The Contemporary Theatre of Dallas offers nothing new to Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite but it feels new and that is why I enjoyed it so thoroughly. It is a faithful, thoughtful, funny, occasionally nostalgic and always engaging production. Three vignettes, each featuring a couple of marital discourse (and not always married to each other) and exposing a glimpse of their visit to room 719 of The Plaza Hotel. That is the tidy concept of this play.
The original Broadway version relied on two actors playing the three sets of couples, giving originator’s George C. Scott and Maureen Stapleton a chance to show off their versatility. I’m happy to report that director Cynthia Hestand chose instead to round out the show with six perfectly cast individuals.
The first vignette, “Visitor from Mamaroneck,” features a struggling middle-aged couple, which may or may not be celebrating their anniversary in the same hotel room that they spent their honeymoon. Marcia Carroll, as Karen Nash, sets the right tone immediately by playing up the character’s desperately blind optimism that this evening alone with her husband might be just the romantic gesture to jumpstart their marriage anew. Dennis Millegan, as her husband Sam, performs a tricky balancing act of vain self-interest and feigning warm assurance to a wife that he feels obligated to at best.
These two are equals, communicating as much in the unspoken word with their world-weary body language as their snarky verbal stabs, cutting into each other the way only a 24-year married couple can. Neil Simon’s words may be truthful and harsh, but these performers are uncannily skillful in always finding the comedy within. Sight gags of lipstick posing as a pen or a misunderstanding on the purpose of eye drops can come across as stagey in lesser hands, but with Millegan and Carroll it comes naturally.
The “Visitor from Hollywood” opening leaves little to the imagination as to what Jesse Kiplinger, a successful film producer, hopes to achieve as he eagerly awaits the arrival of his childhood sweetheart, Muriel Tate. What Jeff Swearingen as Jesse achieves so effectively in this comic tryst, is allowing the comedy to stem not from delaying getting Muriel into the bedroom, but his failure in hoping that the evening would be his escape from all things Hollywood. It is this detail that makes Jesse Kiplinger such an endearing presence in Swearingen’s hands, rather than a total sleaze so many other actors make the character out to be.
Sherry Hopkins adds just the right amount of pep and pluck to Muriel, at first playing up her innocent naiveté, but slowly revealing her surprising unladylike side; a vodka stinger becoming her fitting drink of choice. Together, Swearingen and Hopkins have a playful chemistry that entices the audience with the suspense of what act of human nature this would-be couple will commit next.
The play closes with “Visitor from Forest Hills,” focusing on a set of parents plotting to get their daughter out of a locked bathroom so she can attend her own wedding. This scenario most closely resembles that of a half-hour sitcom. This is not necessarily a bad thing but, as such, the predicament does not allow for new insights upon repeat viewings. Where the first two vignettes were delightfully ambiguous in their resolve, this storyline along with its neatly pat ending is straightforward in a way that seems to comment specifically on the other two couples as if to say, “This is as good as it gets folks, might as well embrace it!”
Norma and Roy Hubley are the polar opposite of the Nash couple. Yes, they are quite unhappy but both seem to wear their discontent and misery as if it suits their standard of contentment. Tom Lenaghen is amusingly lethargic as Roy, reacting to Sue Loncar’s dramatics as Norma, with a come-what-may physicality. Ms. Loncar is amusing in her hysteria, but I often wished that the director had prompted her two actors to be more quick and steadfast in the pacing, as the second half seemed to lose any sense of urgency.
Costume Designer Annell Brodeur fits the actors nicely in mid-1960s period appropriate attire. I especially like the swingin’ '60s look of Jesse Kiplinger and Muriel Tate. Set Designer Rodney Dobbs gives his actors plenty of space to play, in a suite interior with just enough elegance to justify a stay overnight, but not so much that the characters wouldn’t dream of a lapse of luxury in a more modern design.
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