Thursday, February 05, 2004

The Dinner Party (Cleveland Play House)

Script and directing miss mark in 'THE DINNER PARTY' at CPH

Neil Simon is the undisputed master of modern American theatrical comedy. His thirty-one plays have covered a dysfunctional duo living together (‘THE ODD COUPLE’), the plight of newlyweds (‘BAREFOOT IN THE PARK’) and lots of self examination plays including ‘BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS’ ‘BILOXI BLUES,’ ‘BROADWAY BOUND,’ and ‘LOST IN YONKERS.’

Simon is at his best when he adds up a bunch of funny one-liners into a delightful set of plausible circumstances. Think ‘THE STAR-SPANGLED GIRL,’ ‘PLAZA SUITE,’ and ‘LAST OF THE RED HOT LOVERS.’ He’s at his worst when he attempts to philosophize. Think ‘GOD'S FAVORITE,’ ‘JAKE'S WOMEN’ AND ‘PROPOSALS.’ (You’ve probably never heard of the plays as they were generally panned by the critics and avoided by audiences.)

Unfortunately, ‘THE DINNER PARTY,’ now on stage at the Cleveland Play House, falls into Simon’s “message plays” list. Simon should be given credit for trying to break his traditional mode and write a play very different from anything he had done before. Simon has achieved his goal, but it doesn’t translate into success. The script is not a farce, a broad comedy, or a drama with a few laughs. What it actually is is anyone’s guess. What it emphatically is not is a total entertaining evening at the theatre.

The show opened to negative reviews in New York. It ran because of a strong presale based on Simon’s reputation plus a cast that included Henry Winkler and the late-John Ritter.

The plot of ‘THE DINNER PARTY"’is as simple as some of its lines. Gabrielle invites Andre, her ex-husband, with whom she's still in love, and two other couples who used to be married to each other, to a dinner party at a posh Parisian restaurant. Several funny things happen on the way to discovering why she planned the party and how her Machiavellian plan is meant to affect the others. The premise is broad, the effect is shallow.

Adding to the script’s problems is Peter Hackett’s laborious directing, which adds at least half-an-hour to the intermissionless play.

Hacket, who will soon be leaving his position as Artistic Director of CPH, seems to have no clue as how to balance the comedy aspects with the dramatic message. The pacing of the show is torturous. The characters generally display little real emotional passion, laugh lines aren’t keyed, the actors often seem lost. As someone sitting behind me said, “When is this thing going to end?” Unfortunately, this same message must be placed on Hackett’s well-meaning, but misdirected tenure at the CPH. It can only be hoped that his strong academic talents will fit much better into a university setting where his questionable play selections and administative decisions won’t be a factor. He is wished much good luck in what hopefully will be a better setting for his abilities.

The cast of the production at times seems as clueless as the script. Kevin Hogan, as a frustrated writer, walks through his part, often saying funny lines that become unfunny. He seems some place else, not involved in the action. Mary Gen Fjelstad, his stage wife, doesn’t delve into her character and presents flat lines with little emotional variance. David Brummel, as the aloof Andre, and Cynthia Darlow as the evening’s plotter, seem to be feigning feelings. On the other hand Steve McCue, as a nerdy artist in a rented tux and Derdriu Ring, his ex-wife, milk their roles to high levels of humor and pathos. Too bad the whole production didn’t reach McCue and Ring’s level.

The highlight of the evening is scenic designer Vicki Smith’s magnificent high-ceilinged formal French restaurant dining room.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: With a weak script, inept directing and generally shallow acting, ‘THE DINNER PARTY’ is a long sit not worth the effort.