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Think of modern Broadway comedies and Neil Simon immediately springs to mind. The prolific and popular playwright spans four decades of American theater with no fewer than 28 plays and musicals produced on Broadway. And at age 74, he shows no signs of letting up; his Forty-five Seconds from Broadway opens later this season -- on Broadway, where else? So it is altogether fitting that his recent play The Dinner Party should show up at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, the most Broadway-like theater space South Florida has.
Stroll into the playhouse on a performance night and there is a decidedly plaintive echo of Broadway's glory days. It has the wide, deep stage and cavernous auditorium of the Morosco or the old Winter Garden. But its rough concrete walls and bare painted floors lack the tapestries, carpeting, or ornate décor of the grandes dames of the Great White Way. It's as if the playhouse has suffered some calamitous storm that has stripped it of charm but left its functional shell to carry on. Consider the recent crises the playhouse has weathered: a half-million-dollar cut in state funding and the announcement that the state plans to give up ownership of the facility. No wonder it looks the worse for wear. In the face of these setbacks, playhouse producer Arnold Mittelman had to rethink his entire season, but by presenting The Dinner Party, he is making a statement of continuity, circumstances be damned.
Partyharks back to what in Broadway's heyday used to be called "boulevard comedies": witty, urbane trifles with well-dressed characters, social anxieties, and sophisticated if dysfunctional relationships. Set in an elegant Parisian restaurant, this Partybrings a group of single guests to a private dining room, replete with a huge 18th-century-style mural, to which an unseen host has invited them. Claude, a rare-books dealer and frustrated author, arrives first and then meets another guest, Albert, a geeky car-leasing agent who is soon followed by Andre, a wealthy retailer. The three men conjecture about why they were invited and who else will arrive. Since the table has been set for six, they expect two other guests plus the host. As they are all divorced men and unattached, they hope and expect there will be some unattached women. Their expectations are realized when, one after another, three single women arrive. Then they discover that all the invited women are their ex-wives, who have been invited by Andre's ex, Gabrielle.
This lightweight start has all the makings of a Feydeauesque French farce: tuxedoed toffs, witty banter, comedic misunderstandings, and a couple of big doors to slam in and out of. But these are only half as many doors as usual for Feydeau, and The Dinner Party is really only half a farce. The second part of the play is intended as a serious showdown of three couples. All six characters are forced to expose their deepest anger and their most cherished memories in a final, extended confrontation.
Simon has always been a master of comedic repartee with a great range of gifts. He may lack the epigrammatic wit of Oscar Wilde or the piquant verbal swordplay of Noel Coward, but he's got the rhythms and gags of borscht-belt Jewish humor down cold. Where he fails is when he aspires to big ideas. As he has attempted with other plays, Simon lets his comedic plot stall out in indulgent breast-beating as character after character suffers, confesses, and repents. This blend (a mélange, really) has been compared by some critics to the great Russian master Anton Chekhov. Simon himself had a go at Chekhov, adapting several of his stories in The Good Doctor.
But Simon is no Chekhov; he's not even A.R. Gurney. At base, he is a sentimentalist, offering platitudes rather than revelations. And unlike Chekhov, Simon can't seem to see the irony and triviality of his self-absorbed characters.
He's asking the audience to laugh at his barely plausible farcical characters and then expects the same audience to be deeply moved when these shallow creations plumb their petty souls. The essential situation behind The Dinner Party is that one woman seeking to reconcile with her estranged spouse thinks getting together with him and two other similarly broken couples will somehow effect a reconciliation. This is not only incredibly self-delusionary; it's implausible. Why would any of these people hang around for a minute once they find out what's going on? Simon doesn't bother with motivational logic; he just has the door locked so the characters can't get out. Suddenly, the farce turns into No Exit.
Director John Rando (who also directed the Broadway production of this play) handles this stylistic shift by wringing out as many laughs as possible in advance of emotional bloodletting. The strategy, apparently, is that audiences will forgive the serious stuff if they laugh enough beforehand. Rando has staged the first half of this two-hour intermissionless production as a flat-out farce. Both the jokes and the physical comedy are delivered with vigor. In this, Rando is especially helped by the expert clowning of Michael Mastro as the awkward, inept Albert. Mastro is a maestro at physical shtick. Left alone for a moment in the dining room, Albert decides to sneak a taste from the large serving tureens. Just one bite. Then a second. Then a third, a fourth, a fifth -- until suddenly, the door opens and another guest arrives, catching him with his mouth full, fork in midair. Mastro is hilarious at such moments. But when his character is asked to turn serious in the play's second half, his antic charm dissipates.