The Dinner Party

Paper Mill Playhouse, NJ - January 2002

Reviewed by John Kenrick

If fame is a bitch, then being a living legend must be pure hell. Just ask Neil Simon. He doesn't just have a few previous successes to live up to -- he has dozens. Every new script he turns out is judged against his previous output. Imagine having to live up to The Sunshine Boys, Barefoot in the Park, Odd Couple, Plaza Suite, Goodbye Girl, Broadway Bound, Biloxi Blues, Lost in Yonkers . . . it's a staggering list. No other living stage or screen writer has such a track record, and it's not likely anyone else will even half match it in the future. As a point of mathematics and sheer common sense, it is inevitable that some of Simon s plays should fall far short of his honor roll. The Dinner Party is one such play.

Of course, a lesser effort from Neil Simon still offers more than its share laughs. Having long since abandoned his penchant for sprinkling dialogue with one-liners, Simon's later plays evoke humor through situation and characterization. As a result, he can turn an innocuous phrase like, "You're number four, I'm number two" into a sure-fire belly laugh. This is one of the hallmark of great comic writing technique. But technique can only go so far. A comic situation has to be pretty solid to merit a full-length play. Although this tale of three divorced couples mysteriously invited to the same posh Parisian dinner party is over in one ninety-minute act, it is too long. The script runs out of steam in half that time, leaving audiences wondering why the characters haven t long since walked out on this bizarre gathering and why everyone in the theater shouldn't follow suit.

And why bother setting this in Paris? Despite a few door slams, this is not a French farce, and there is nothing French, or even vaguely continental, about these characters. Simon is a master of site-specific characterization for anyplace from Beverly Hills to Brighton Beach, so it is a real disappointment to find we re only in Paris so the restaurant can be luxe.

It takes seasoned comic actors and first-rate production values to give The Dinner Party any hope of holding an audience past the first round of champagne. While the Paper Mill version (co-produced with Florida s Coconut Grove Playhouse) does not have anywhere near the stellar names that graced the original Broadway cast, it brings together some fine talents who know how to make the most of this sometimes frustrating material. It is no exaggeration to say the physical production is as good as the Broadway version, because it is the Broadway version. John Lee Beatty's gilded setting has been handsomely reproduced, including the Fragonard-style mural and crystal chandelier that I would love to have in my own dining room. (As if they would fit!) Maryann D. Smith did a stylish job of adapting Jane Greenwood s original costume designs, and Brian MacDevitt s lighting gives the staging by original director John Rado (also responsible for Urinetown) just the sort of subtle support it needs. Despite the limitations of one set and one act, the visual presentation remains a nicely varied pleasure to the eye.

Broadway and TV veteran Stephen Vinovich shows great authority as the boorish businessman everyone else on stage loves to hate, and Meg Foster (of Fox s Malcolm in the Middle) has the almost thankless task of making us believe his ex-wife could actually want this abusive so-and-so back in her life. Greg Mullavey (oh, how my mom loved him on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman!) displays his command of timing and physical shtick as a book seller who s writing dreams never paid off, and Elizabeth Heflin proves that comedy can be beautiful as his ex who s novels have become best sellers. The circle is completed with deft comic performances by Michael Mastro as an easily befuddled rent-a-car man and Catherine Lloyd-Burns as the mousy wife who has divorced him not once, but twice.

This solid ensemble is clearly having a good time, winning every laugh and making the most of the more poignant moments. But no cast can make The Dinner Party more than what it is a frequently amusing but ultimately unsatisfying comedy. It's more than a question of this not being Neil Simon s best. Whoever its author and however well it is presented, this play just doesn t add up to much.

Like I said, it must be hell living up to a legend like Simon's.

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