No one blends the bittersweet, the ironic with comedy quite like Neil Simon. He takes painful situations and works through them with humor. The third vignette from California Suite (Visitors from London) might have been inspired by the popular joke. Jessica tells her best friend, Monica, how thrilled she is with her new beau. He is warm, sensitive, demonstrative, and attentive to her emotional needs. “He sounds perfect,” exclaims Monica. “There’s just one problem,” Monica explains, “he’s gay.” So it is with Sidney and Diana Nichols, an antiques dealer and his wife, a British Theatre Diva on a par with Glenda Jackson or Judi Dench. While their disparate orientations are not the focal point, we begin to wonder if a straight man would be quite so patient with Diana’s histrionics.
Diana has been nominated for Best Actress, and they’re visiting America to attend the Oscars. We see them dressing before the event, all dry, erudite insouciance, and returning afterwards, Diana self-medicating with undiluted gin. Simon plays on our assumptions of British celebrity. We imagine they’re lofty, frosty and effete, but of course, when they’re alone, the facades crumble. Nothing too trenchant here, all in all, it’s light, nimble pleasure, but, like so much of Simon, the disappointments and compromises we must navigate to survive are evident and unvarnished.
In the first vignette (Visitor from New York) Hannah Warren, ex-wife of William Warren, is in town to pick up their teenage daughter, in compliance with their custody arrangements. The daughter has made it clear she’d rather spend the rest of her senior school year with dad. Hannah is wry and bitter, if also self-possessed. When she suggests contention between all parents and adolescents, she’s not wrong, though it’s unclear if she expresses this opinion more for her own sake, than by way of mitigation. Of California Suite’s four pieces, this one is probably the most excruciating. Hannah must make the best choice for her daughter (she and William are divorced, but not antagonistic) at a time when she’s fighting with isolation and despair. True to form, Simon provides her with gags to alleviate the ache.
The other two vignettes, Marvin Michaels must hide a (drunken, passed out) escort from his wife, Millie, and two couples visiting from Chicago, who get along better when they’re not so close, have more to do with physical comedy, though irony still informs the plot. There’s a deprecating, throwaway quality to so much of Simon’s banter. It feels innocuous, cavalier, but it’s like an invisible scalpel. It’s Simon’s way of performing surgery while applying just enough local anesthetic to ease the sting. Standouts in this exceptional cast (with inspired guidance from Director Rachael Lindley) include Janette Oswald (Diana ) Victoria Craig (Hannah) Christopher Dean (William) Greg Phillips (Marvin) and Leigh Moore (Millie).
Richardson Theatre Centre presents California Suite, playing November 8th-24th, 2013.
518 West Arapaho Road, Suite 113, Richardson, Texas 75080. 972-699-1130. richardsontheatrecentre.net