July 16, 2021
Simon’s scriptwriting genius shines through in Playhouse production
By John Busbee for The Culture Buzz
With a feeling of performance shadows from bygone tent shows, experiencing a comedy play under the canvas is a special experience. The breezes gently wafting through the open sides, the erratic backdrop of passing vehicles, the rise and fall of cicadas – all become background noises that fade when the show begins, and the energy of Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite pours from the stage, enveloping the audience. This summer’s tent show adds a unique sensory level to the Des Moines Playhouse experience that newcomers to this esteemed company will treasure, and longtime fans will savor.
As the non-musical side of a summer duo (with the exuberant Godspell occupying the flip side of this repertory coin), Plaza Suite brings the brilliant award-winning script of Neil Simon to vibrant life. Simon’s insightful, poignant capturing of human folly is magnified in triplicate through this show’s trio of scenarios. All occur in the same hotel suite, just at different times. With dialogue that can tickle the funny bone, then tug at the heartstrings, perhaps the only shortcoming is that some of the language may seem a bit dated from a show that made its Broadway premiere in 1968. Such anachronistic disturbances are soon forgotten, as the timelessness of Simon’s human study still shines strong.
Suite 719 in New York’s Plaza Hotel is the setting, a trio of life-slice stories unfolds. First, under the intricate and well-intentioned planning of Karen Nash (Jennifer Hughes), plans are set for a re-enactment of her decades-old honeymoon night with husband, Sam (Jim Benda). Memories are off, friction is on, comedy and drama co-mingle, and plans unravel in unexpected ways. Hughes brings layered nuances to her Karen, carrying this scene strongly to its conclusion. Working through Benda’s Sam, a workaholic who has drifted from his marriage, his nitpicky fussiness and soon-revealed secret quickly speed the relationship to its inevitable end. Add a memorable appearance by Samantha Miller as the crisp, efficient secretary who pops in for business, and this first part of the trio gets Plaza Suite rolling.
Bobby Nalean as Jesse Kiplinger and Emily Davis as Muriel Tate give a finely focused seduction scenario in the second Suite 719 scene. Nalean, as the Hollywood actor who made it big, beckons his high school flame to join him to reminisce. She reluctantly does so, as her ever-shifting terms for departure come spilling from her heart as easily as the vodka stingers spill down her throat. Davis’ portrayal of Muriel is masterful. Her coquettish demeanor is quickly revealed as a cover for a much deeper knowledge of Jesse’s career, hinting at ulterior motives. Nalean veils his intentions hidden by the behind-the-scenes troubled star. He seeks an understanding soul with whom to commiserate. All eyes are on Davis’ engaging pacing, however, which have her flitting from frightened butterfly to attacking wasp in delightful fashion.
The third scene captures the parents of a bride in a time-intense turmoil. The bride has locked herself in the bathroom of Suite 719. The groom is awaiting in the ballroom. Roy Hubley (played with gruff exasperation by Lorenzo Sandoval, albeit with an inconsistent dialect) is watching the monetary meters accumulate on band, food, drink. Norma Hubley (marvelously captured by Donna Scarfe) attempts to be the peacemaker and resolver. Daughter Mimsey (a second appearance by Samantha Miller) remains barricaded in the bathroom. The keyhole provides glimpses of her sequestered state. Cajoling, demanding, imploring – nothing works, as the friction of the situation expands into an evaluation of Roy and Norma’s relationship. All spins towards a bittersweet Simon-esque ending.
A tip of the (bellman’s) cap goes to Jacob Jones as the animated bellhop and Jake Parks as the attentive waiter (in two scenes) plus a defining cameo as the groom, Bordon Eisler, in the third scene.
Director Sarah Grant keeps the pace lively throughout, and bucked the usual casting of one couple to play all three leading roles. It works, but doesn’t give this audience the opportunity to witness two actors make the chameleon shift between scenes that the original work intended. This still is a very satisfying renewal in appreciating Simon’s writing, and a chance for new audiences to experience a live performance of one of America’s most successful playwrights. Alex Snodgrass provides a suggestive scenic concept that is open, yet evokes the two-room suite. Angela Lampe’s costume design presented a palate as diverse as the characters and the three situations. Get your tickets, and enjoy the brilliance of Neil Simon. The added quirks of being outdoors – an occasional firefly, the night sounds – coupled with the oddly flickering sconce light merely add to the memories to be created when you experience the Playhouse’s production of Plaza Suite.
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