Bitter Suite

Neil Simon is the most prolific and successful of contemporary playwrights. And the most maligned. Legendary director and theatrical scholar Harold Clurman wrote an article back in the Sixties called "In Defense of Neil Simon." Whereupon Simon's business manager asked Clurman "why a man who earns $40,000 a week needs a defense."

Yet at that point in Simon's career, perhaps he did need defending. His early work was typically ruled by gags and farce and not much substance beneath. As a playwright, Simon passed through three distinct stages, the first of which yielded upbeat comedies such as Come Blow Your Horn and Barefoot in the Park. Representative of the second phase were California Suite and The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, plays comprising three separate acts linked only by a single common character or location. In 1970 Simon took a walk on the darker side with The Gingerbread Lady, his fable of an alcoholic cabaret singer. From there, he metamorphosed from simple court jester into genuine black-comedian, even exposing his own bittersweet life in such autobiographical works as Brighton Beach Memoirs.

Plaza Suite, a product of the second, simpler Simon phase, poses a challenge, demanding expert production and energetic actors to rescue a loose plot structure, corny situations, and punch lines that don't seem nearly as funny as they did when the play was a Broadway hit in 1968.

A husband cheating on his aging wife, a woman obsessed with celebrities, a nervous bride-to-be who refuses to come out of the bathroom - cliches abound in Plaza Suite, given an alternately listless and overacted incarnation at The Actors' Playhouse. Through three separate stories - which play more like sketches from The Love Boat than meaty scenes - Suite 719 of New York's famed Plaza Hotel is the common denominator.

First up as suitemates are Karen and Sam Nash, married 23 years, and Sam's mistress, Jean. Karen, ditzy but hopeful, has booked 719 for a romantic anniversary celebration; it's the same room (or so she thinks) in which she spent her honeymoon night. But Sam's arranged his own plans with his secretary - and they don't include his wimpy, wilting wife.

Four months later, Jesse Kiplinger, a tasteless Hollywood bigwig, lures Muriel, his nervous ex-girlfriend from New Jersey, to the same suite, hoping to consummate the one seduction he never managed to pull off. Jesse is about as genuine as his costume jewelry, and Muriel lives vicariously through celebrities and fan magazines. When at last they reunite after seventeen years and Jesse kisses her, Muriel responds by excitedly asking him about Frank Sinatra.

And finally Roy and Norma Hubley, a couple of beleaguered social climbers, try fruitlessly to coax their about-to-be-married daughter from a locked bathroom. The couple fumes, begs, argues, and bribes, but Mimsy won't budge from the toilet seat. Apparently a life spent witnessing her parents' dysfunctional relationship has caused her cold feet to freeze solid.

Of the three acts, only the first contains any semblance of wit and sensitivity, studying in often uncomfortable detail a menopausal wife whose husband recaptures his youth by trading her in for a newer model. Acts Two and Three mean nothing and go nowhere, endlessly milking one-shot gags. Sitting through this tedium, I couldn't help but wonder why so many theaters persist in resurrecting thin, dated plays and musicals instead of ringing in the new, or at least giving original twists to classic works. The belief that South Floridians crave only lighthearted entertainment must be revised, or this theatrical community will never gain national attention.

Still, Simon's not the only one at fault in this production. Director Barry Steinman, former managing director of the Coconut Grove Playhouse, staged the piece nicely but neglected to give dramatic advice. Consequently, David Arisco, the Actors' Playhouse artistic director, flaps, flounders, and roars, but rarely convinces. Arisco's only genuine moments peek through in Act One, while portraying the boorish Sam Nash. Both as phony Jesse Kiplinger and harried Roy Hubley, Arisco pushes the joke instead of playing the reality and allowing the laughs to come naturally. Carol Cavallo, as Jean, Muriel, and the barricaded bride, displays a similar forced quality. Her Muriel sounds a single, strident note that brings to mind the grating of fingernails on a chalkboard.

Playing several minor roles as bewigged bellhops, waiters, and, in the last act, the bridegroom, Danny Harvey employs strange accents and bizarre walks in a futile effort to convey comedy. Only Cynthia Caquelin, both as Karen Nash and the passive mother of the bride, infuses her work with honesty, though she sometimes sins on the side of listlessness, never quite connecting with Simon's broad, high-energy humor. Zak Herring's set works for the staging, but doesn't evoke the ritzy, lush hotel. The costumes by Ellis Tillman - especially Caquelin's tangerine-color gown in the third act - stand out as the most impressive work in this venture.

Neil Simon's early work brought him great wealth and popularity. But a quarter-century later, it's hard to imagine a time when one-liners about cocktail franks and Dr. Joyce Brothers yielded great comic theater. Add to that a weak rendition, and the final product resembles a deserted old joke factory. When a structure filled with cracks is placed upon a shaky foundation, there's only one thing to do - stand clear of the area.

PLAZA SUITE
Written by Neil Simon, directed by Barry Steinman; with David Arisco, Cynthia Caquelin, Carol Cavallo, and Danny Harvey. At the Actors' Playhouse Mainstage, 8851 SW 107 Ave, Kendall, through February 9. Performances Wednesday - Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Sunday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Tickets cost $18.50 to $22.50. Call 595-0010 for more information.

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