Reviewed by George Basler
Mention playwright Neil Simon, and most casual theater goers are likely to think of light comedies and one-liners. But beyond wisecracks, a sense of melancholy hangs over parts of Plaza Suite– a production that opened this past weekend (March 1-3) at Ti-Ahwaga Community Theater in Owego.
The skillfully done production, well directed by James Osborne, has its share of funny moments, but they’re mixed in with some painful ones as well. Not everything is sweetness and light, and that may be disconcerting to audience members expecting pure laughs.
Plaza Suite, which opened on Broadway in 1968 and was a big hit, came at a time when Simon was beginning to add depth to his work by treating serious issues with comic touches, Laurie Brearley noted in the Players’ program.
But the passing years have not been overly kind to the play. Simon would have much more success in merging comedy with drama in his later works, and certain social attitudes in Plaza Suite are badly dated.
The play’s structure is three separate one-act plays connected by their location, a luxury suite at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. Each act is radically different in tone, ranging from pure farce to satire to dark comedy.
The dark comedy is apparent in the first act. The action centers on the attempt of a neglected wife (Kathy Harris-Woodruff) to inject some sparkle back into her fraying marriage by enticing her husband (James T. Cornell) back to the hotel suite where they spent their honeymoon 23 or 24 years ago. (The couple can’t even agree on the year.)
Harris-Woodruff and Cornell do fine jobs in the roles. Harris-Woodruff is funny and touching and shows a skillful touch with physical comedy. Cornell is equally skillful in the less flashy role of the narcissistic husband who is going through a severe mid-life crisis. They effectively play off each other, with Cornell’s underplaying balancing Harris-Woodruff’s showy mannerisms.
The act, though, is marred by its schizophrenic nature. While the characters are presented in a comic manner, the emotional pain at the core of the act is anything but comic. This mismatch leads to a muddled fact that gets progressively darker as it progresses and leaves a distinctly sour aftertaste.
The second act is a satirical poke at celebrity worship and Hollywood phoniness. In the act, a smarmy Hollywood producer (Sonny DeWitt) sets out to lure his former high school girlfriend (Anne Glasgow), who is now a suburban housewife, into a one-night stand. The joke is that the producer doesn’t have to work very hard. The housewife is totally starstruck and more than willing to be lured from the path of righteousness, despite her protestations to the contrary.
DeWitt and Glasgow do solid jobs in the roles. DeWitt plays the producer with the right touch of slinking smoothness while Glasgow has first-rate comic timing as the besotted housewife. For example, when offered a drink, Glasgow demurely declines, then, without missing a beat, blurts out, “Vodka stinger.”
But the two performers can’t disguise the fact that the joke wears thin and is the most dated part of the play. What could be judged a comic trifle 50 years ago has taken on an unpleasant and far from comic undertone in the era of the #MeToo movement. The ending is especially problematic.
The final act is pure farce and is the funniest part of Plaza Suite. Cornell and Harris-Woodruff do a superb job in delivering laughs as a suburban New Jersey couple driven into a frenzy after their daughter locks herself in the hotel bathroom on her wedding day. Their increasingly frantic efforts to lure her out of the john are laugh-out-loud hilarious.
Moreover, Osborne directs the action at the appropriately fast-paced level as the characters huff and puff their way across the stage. DeWitt, Ti-Ahwaga’s executive director, deserves credit for his set design.
While Plaza Suite is far from Simon’s best play, it has its moments, and the cast rises to the occasion. The final act especially is a real crowd-pleaser, so the production ends on a high note.
IF YOU GO: The Ti-Ahwaga Community Players will present Plaza Suite March 8-10 and 15-17 at the Ti-Ahwaga Community Theater, 42 Delphine St., Owego. Friday and Saturday performances are at 8 p.m. while Sunday performances are at 2 p.m. Tickets are $22 (seniors and students with ID, $18); call 687-2130 or visit www.tiahwaga.com.