One of the vastly pleasurable conundrums of Neil Simon’s comedy is his perverse worldview. No matter how ideal the situation, there’s at least one character who can see the downside; no matter how terrible, one least one manages to crack a joke. One imagines if his car was totaled, Simon would remark, “Hey, the stereo never worked.” In The Gingerbread Lady, surely one of Simon’s most sorrowful comedies, the protagonist is well-equipped to lighten even the most painful circumstances with a gag, perhaps at the expense of embracing crucial truths. Such is often the strategy behind Simon’s plays, and Plaza Suite (currently playing at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas through Sunday) is no exception. Comprised of three vignettes, all set in the same room of the Plaza Hotel in New York in 1966, Plaza Suite works surprisingly well. The dated references really don’t seem to detract from Simon’s incisive, prickly, though ultimately humane wit, and the cast is exceptionally well matched to the dry, savvy humor.
First up is the bittersweet Visitor from Mamaroneck. Sam and Karen Nash must check into the hotel while their house is being painted, and Karen spots an opportunity to inject some romance into their somewhat famished marriage. A spontaneous argument uncovers more than she wants to know, or at least suspected. As the situation escalates, she clings to humor (as we might expect) but we also begin to wonder how much she’s being punished for simply being a different person from her husband. Marcia Carroll (always delightful) does her dance with pathos, but she never comes off as pitiable, or defeated. This strong piece ends, appropriately, with nothing resolved. Sam (Dennis Millegan) leaves And our hearts in knots.
Visitor from Hollywood is a comedy of manners and mistaken assumptions. Jesse Kiplinger and Muriel Tate are old high school sweethearts, both disillusioned with the spouses they chose, and both deluded that the other has it made. Jesse (Jeff Swearingen) obviously wants to seduce Muriel (Sherry Hopkins) and she keeps shifting gears between : “Keep your hands to yourself!” and “Let me help you with that hook.” [Not actual quotes.] Jesse left their small town to become a big Hollywood producer and while he’s successful, the glamour of that lifestyle is hollow. It takes awhile before he catches on to Muriel’s soft spot : the more he talks about the parties and the mansions and the celebrities, the more heated up she becomes. The two climb into bed together, while Jesse recites a litany of movie royalty from 60’s. In a very genuine sense they turn to each other to salve their despair, but wind up pandering to each other’s expectations.
Visitor from Forest Hills is perhaps the lightest of these three one-acts. Mimsey Hubley (Mary Jerome) has locked herself in the bathroom on the morning of her wedding, and her mother, Norma (Sue Loncar) can’t get her to budge, vainly trying to communicate through a locked door. When the dad, Roy Hubley (Tom Lenaghen) comes up to sort out the delay, he has little tolerance for the delicacy of the problem : “I’ve got $100.00 worth of cocktail wieners downstairs getting cold.” Between blaming Norma for the crisis and bemoaning the cost of a wedding that might not happen, Roy is only making the situation worse. In the midst of all this havoc, the two wrestle with all the insecurities that must come with raising a child safely to adulthood, in this minefield we call living. In desperation they call the groom, Borden Eisler (Matthew Clark) to see if he can salvage the jeopardized nuptials.
If I make all of this sound more melancholy than funny (It’s my job to talk about subtext, what can I tell you?) don’t worry, it’s actually very clever and amusing and entertaining, and an excellent tonic to cure those naughty, persistent blues. No one makes the medicine go down like Neil Simon. Catch this marvelous gem before it closes Sunday.
Contemporary Theatre of Dallas proudly presents Plaza Suite, extended run through Sunday, February 10th, 2013. 5601 Sears Street Dallas, TX 75206 214.828.0094. www.contemporarytheatreofdallas.org