Listen: Unless your yearly salary is in the very-high six figures, don't bother seeing Suite Surrender. There's no need. It's not bad, it's not good, it's not something you'll remember a week or even a day later. It is the comedic equivalent of a rice cake, a bowl of miso soup, a slice of Pizza Hut pizza. It is fine, fun, fast entertainment for people who'd rather kill time than spend it. A really excellent seat at Caldwell's plush new theater will cost you $42 (a slightly less-excellent seat will cost you $36), and for the same amount of money, you can take your whole family to the nearest Movieco to see Cloverfield, which, though not a comedy, made me laugh a lot harder than Suite Surrender, which I found approximately as scary.
Of course, Suite Surrender isn't supposed to be scary. It just starts that way. Local luminary Michael McKeever's new comedy is part of the grand tradition that led from the Three Stooges through the misadventures of Wile E. Coyote to Dumb & Dumber — broad, physical comedy devoid of content. And yet, for the first 15 minutes of the performance I attended, the show elicited no laughter. Every joke died on the stage. Few terrors can compare to the sight of a bunch of actors trying their best to inject the requisite enthusiasm into a big, silly, physical farce and drawing nothing but sullen contempt from a house full of extremely aged theatergoers. You weep for the performers, and you want nothing more than to climb beneath your seat and burrow a tunnel clear out of the auditorium, out of Boca, out of the whole blasted state. It's mortifying, and the thought that the situation may extend itself until whatever sorry excuse for a curtain call the heartbroken thespians can muster an hour and a half later is enough to make even hardened theater people contemplate pulling their subscriptions.
But that's not how it plays. Like I said, Suite Surrender isn't a bad show. Give a house full of Caldwellians ten or 15 minutes to realize that all they're supposed to do is watch the idiocy unfold — which is to say, give them some time to lower their expectations — and they'll come around. The laughter starts in the back of the house, in the cheap seats of the people who don't go to the theater much, and then creeps forward until even the critics are enjoying themselves. By the time the curtain call really does arrive, the applause is rapturous. Not because Suite Surrender, the play, deserves much applause but because the actors did such a phenomenal job of bringing us around to their side.
Suite Surrender Written by Michael McKeever. Directed by Joe Warik. With David Perez-Ribada, Tom Wahl, John Felix, Kay Brady, Pat Nesbit, Elizabeth Dimon, Michael McKeever, Suellen Estey, and Autumn Horne. Presented through February 17 at the Caldwell Theatre Company's Count de Hoernle Theatre, 7901 N. Federal Hwy., Boca Raton. Call 877-245-7432, or visit www.caldwelltheatre.org.
Suite Surrender is the story of two big-time Hollywood divas who have been accidentally booked into the same suite at a hotel (the Palm Beach Royale). It's the 1940s, the war is on, and they're in town to do a benefit for the troops. Unhappily for them and for the mental health of the hotel's entire staff, these two divas hate each other.
Nobody knows why that is until very near the end of the play, and nobody cares. What interests us is watching the staff gradually come to understand that, unbeknown to each other, the divas have already taken up residence in the suite and have avoided discovering each other only through blind, dumb luck. It falls to the staff and the divas' secretaries to make sure the luck holds until the benefit.
This is the entire premise, and it's so flimsy that you really have to tip your hat to McKeever for keeping the mess afloat. All through Suite Surrender's jaunt across the stage, I found myself drawn steadily deeper into McKeever's onstage universe, along with the rest of the audience, despite the many inanities of the plot, the dialogue, the internal logic, and everything else. Given the show's handicaps, that's not just peanuts. Virtually any other production dealing with a similar subject in a similar way would do nothing but alienate us. Good for you, Michael.
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But please: As SoFla's best-known playwright, couldn't you have given us something with more meat? Or if you had to write this thing — if some misguided muse compelled you to do so — couldn't you have kept it to 20 minutes and saved it for Summer Shorts? Because by beefing up this inessential giggle of a show to a full however-many minutes, you've left your actors — yourself included — high and dry, forced to rely on the very basest of showbiz conventions to give your audiences the good times they paid for.
For example, it's fun watching Pat Nesbit play a scandal-crazy gossip columnist whose head is repeatedly bashed in by clueless divas flinging open their bedroom doors. Great! But we've seen that gag before — in I Love Lucy and too many other places to list — and the only reason we laughed the other night is because it was Pat Nesbit's head getting thwacked. Or "Dora del Rio's" head, if you like, though I am tempted not to mention the character's name because the play is so full of broad-stroke portrayals of broad-stroke characters that "Dora del Rio" scarcely exists. Whoever she is or was supposed to be, we never really know. Rather, "Dora del Rio" is Pat Nesbit, beloved South Florida actress, behaving oddly.
This is true of no fewer than five of the nine actors in the show. Kay Brady, Autumn Horne, David Perez-Ribada, and Tom Wahl, along with Nesbit, might as well not even exist as actors. Their characters are so loosely drawn that they can be nothing but fuzzy reproductions of old archetypes. The doddering old woman, the awkward love-struck girl, the skeezy reporter, the dumb-but-well-meaning brute, the put-upon nice guy. Yes, they have the power to entertain, but so what? The funniest thing any of them manage to do is throw a dog over a balcony, and that's never a good sign.
Happily, the other four actors have more to work with. McKeever himself, playing the secretary to diva Claudia McFadden, is a charming Michael Jeter sort of character, cringing through life until at last he works up the chutzpah to take a stand. The divas — played by Elizabeth Dimon and Suellen Estey — are imperious and full of gleeful awfulness. John Felix made out best; he's the only actor who comes out of this looking better than when he went in. As the freaked-out hotel manager, Felix is a great American answer to John Cleese in Fawlty Towers — which, if you're interested, is available in its entirety on Amazon.com for the low, low price of $42.49. That's 12 episodes for only 49 cents more than what Caldwell's asking for one, and you don't even have to get dressed up.