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What's So Funny?

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.

Party harks 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 Party brings 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.

Like Mastro, the rest of the cast is adept at serving the play's comedic elements, but their characterizations seem to be drawn from many different plays. As Claude, Greg Mullavey, a veteran of several Neil Simon plays, knows how to sell a joke, and many of his lines sound more at home on the Catskills comedy circuit than on the Champs Élysées. As his counterpart, Mariette, Elizabeth Heflin offers less shtick and more substance overall, while Catherine Lloyd Burns plays Albert's ex, Yvonne, as an adenoidal geek. Burns's take fits early in the production, but her cartoonish Yvonne isn't credible when all the heart-rending revelations show up. She's not alone. It's at that point that the show stops dead in its tracks, and Rando seems at a complete loss as to what to do about it. He doesn't even bother with much staging in the late going. The characters end up lounging around on the furniture as, one by one, each stands up to deliver soul-searching monologues.

This play finally comes down to a showdown between Gabrielle and Andre, a long-delayed and very serious confrontation. Simon has written this relationship as a sexually explosive liaison that was so consuming, the relationship lacked substance or comfort. In Andre and Gabrielle, the playwright has the makings of a potent, powerful dramatic conflict. This pair is reminiscent of the feuding fairies Oberon and Titania from A Midsummer Night's Dream and the bittersweet relationship of Alceste and Celimene in Molière's The Misanthrope, other plays about lovers who long for but can't stand each other. Certainly, Meg Foster delivers her end of this equation; her Gabrielle slinks and slithers around Andre like a jungle cat in heat. But Steve Vinovich's stolid, tough-guy take on Andre fails to give much sense of the lust that is discussed in detail in the dialogue. As Vinovich plays Andre, there isn't a lot of fire left in this guy. It feels as though Lee Iacocca wandered into Les Liaisons Dangereuses. There's only one moment when it looks as if he might waiver: He suddenly grabs her and plants a soul-sucking kiss on her that heats up the stage. But one moment does not a play make.

It's easy to slam Simon for not writing another Odd Couple here, and many critics have done so. This is not a "Neil Simon comedy," however. This is a drama with humor. But everyone -- writer, director, cast, the PR people -- is setting up too many expectations here. The laughs don't carry the show. The plot isn't funny; the situation isn't funny. What if this were played seriously? What if the laughs came out of the situation rather than slammed home in quotes? But maybe that wouldn't sell. Maybe Simon wouldn't allow it. Maybe people wouldn't come. And maybe the playhouse, struggling to weather all those tough breaks, can't risk challenging its core audience. That's the real world of play production these days, even without the added problems of recession and terrorism. And that's no laughing matter.

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Ronald Mangravite

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