Saw a very fun show last night at Amil Tellers of Dramatics, Inc., Encore Theatre. “Plaza Suite”, written by my favorite playwright of all time, Neil Simon, was the fare. I don’t remember the movie, derived from this show, kindly, though I did recall that the great Walter Matthau starred in it. I had seen other Simon screen adaptations and liked most of them, but this one did not strike my memory quite so favorably.
“Plaza Suite” debuted on Broadway in 1968, and went over a thousand performances, earning award nominations for its direction, script, and lead actress. Legendary Broadway talent, Mike Nichols took home the hardware for his direction. The script was turned to several different films, none of which were successful.
The setting is the late sixties. It is suite 719 at New York City’s Plaza Hotel. There are three different story-lines, none of which are connected, so they are each treated as an “act”. The three act play, presented at Encore, has various actors appearing and reappearing in multiple roles, maybe not so much as on the Broadway stage, but in this instance spreading the parts around seems to work.
Audiences love the subtle, and not-so-subtle humor that Simon possesses. He has dozens of plays, dozens of Tonys and millions of fans. I will say that some of the situations, and scene speed that were popular in the sixties and seventies struggle in this “enlightened” era. In particular, the first act of this play, “Visitor from Mamaroneck”, was, I felt, slow. I first wanted to ask the two actors, Sheri Welker and Brian Emerick to pick up their cues. But upon reflection, and during the length of the scene, I realized I wanted, not the actors, but Simon to pick up the pace. There you have it, folks. “No-talent writer criticizes his theatrical hero, winner of every award imaginable.” I looked around me. Even at my advanced age, I was the youngster in this audience. And they weren’t worried about any pace. They were loving on the situation, the frustration of the characters, and the warm humor of the jousting couple. I realized that these people were raised in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies. This is what they grew up with. This is what they knew. And this is what they wanted. So a major success for Ms. Welker, and Mssrs. Emerick and Simon.
The second story of the trilogy, “Visitor from Hollywood”, had me unsettled. The main male character, Jesse, gives away his evil plot, barely seconds into the scene, when he takes great effort to make the hotel bed look “inviting”. It says, “Look out! The seduction is on its way”. Maybe it was just the day I had, but that giveaway colored my view of Jesse, and made me nervous about what his intentions were. So, in comes the object of Jesse’s plot, Muriel, an ex-girlfriend from years past, who has a husband and a handful of kids and an incredibly innocent demeanor. You wonder how this woman can be successfully captured. But almost immediately there are hints and rumors of Muriel’s wavering, and we come to see, that each is playing a role in a game which will eventually lead them to the bedroom.
Joe Maurer and Stacee Kalla portray Jesse and Muriel. Joe/Jesse is, at once, calculating, vulnerable, seemingly honest, and yet… Stacee/Muriel is just stand-offish enough, yet coquettish enough to give us pause to wonder whether Jesse will win this battle. It is a battle which rages back and forth, until the liquor seals the deal. Maurer and Kalla are a fine pairing.
There were originally four vignettes to Simon’s play. As the time neared to bring it to the Broadway stage, one of the four “acts” was dropped. It later appeared as a decent film, “The Out-of-Towners”, starring Jack Lemon and Sandy Dennis. Both Dennis and Lemon were nominated for Golden Globes, and Simon received Best Comedy written directly for the screen, by the Writer’s Guild of America.
The fourth vignette gone, the play ends with one titled, “Visitor from Forest Hills”. This situation involves a soon-to-be bride, and her parents. Mimsey Hubley (Patricia Lynn) has locked herself into the bathroom of suite 719 and won’t speak to her parents, nor will she come out. The wedding is to take place in moments, but the aggravated and worried Roy and Norma Hubley (Christopher Butturff and Sheri Welker) have no clue how to avoid the potential embarrassment and social stigma of canceling the big shindig. To Roy, it’s all about the money. How much per hour he’s paying the band, How much he’s spent to throw this lavish party. Norma is frustrated, but more worried about her daughter.
I found this scene to have the better pace, story, and delivery of the three. Much of this happened when Butturff came barreling onto the stage, intent on pushing his daughter to give up her seclusion. His accent, motions, facial creations and his varying inflection, give Roy the chance to highlight the entire play. And Butturff is no amateur when it comes to highlighting. He takes charge in a big way, endearing himself to the audience and perking them up. The pace is fast, the changes in mood, believable, and the angst palpable. The audience ate this scene up. To her credit, Ms. Welker’s Norma, though an equal on the stage, did not allow her ego to contest with Butturff. She was, in every way, the poor, put-upon mother of the bride. Simon wrote Roy to be the biggest comedic piece to the scene, and Welker was happy to let that occur. I found her extremely likeable, more so than in the first vignette. I suspect, once again, this is my unsupportable judgment upon her for Simon’s slow paced first scene. Not her fault at all. I found Ms. Welker’s hair and costume, even her attitude, a welcome change from the more frumpy (by design) 47 (?) year old from Mamaroneck.
Would I advise you to see this? Oh yeah. It is Neil Simon, after all. And the cast works it hard, getting all the laughs where they belong. And one more thing. The set design by director Ron Hesseling is tightly impressive and the set painting/ decoration, overseen, by Karen Finn is up to her usual high standards. The show will appear again this evening, tomorrow afternoon, and next weekend. Go and see if you can agree with me, or pick out things I missed, or was wrong about. Have a good time at the Plaza!
Final performances May 19th-21st, 2017.