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Amusing Enough

'The Dinner Party' isn't one of Neil Simon's best, but it's adequately entertaining



I have a friend who, when asked about his well-being, often replies, "Absolutely adequate."

My friend's declaration is also an accurate description of Live Theatre Workshop's production of Neil Simon's The Dinner Party.

In almost every aspect, it is solid, but not stellar. It's a fairly tidy production of a fairly tidy script which provides some chuckles and maybe even a couple of things to think about—but it's not going to leave you trying to catch your breath from laughing at its humor, and it's not going to pierce your heart with its emotional depth. It's simply an absolutely adequate evening of light theatrical entertainment.

Neil Simon, of course, is one of America's most successful playwrights. Born and raised in the Bronx, he began writing material for radio and television in the 1950s before migrating to the theater and film. As a playwright, he positively blossomed in the 1960s, with hits like Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple and Plaza Suite. He at one point had four shows running simultaneously on Broadway, an achievement unheard of before or since. Despite being an undisputed master of comedy, he has also revealed a desire to infuse his plays with a bit of seriousness, although fans and critics initially did not respond favorably. His semi-autobiographical trilogy—Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound—are among his greatest successes in the last three decades, and Lost in Yonkers won both a Tony for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize in 1991.

The Dinner Party was first produced in 2000, with Simon seeking a happy marriage of witty one-liners and somewhat serious substance. Here, the substance is marriage and divorce, a subject into which Simon should be able to offer much insight, since he has been married five times. Then again, with that record, his musings about the subject could be more than a little suspect. Undeniably, he has plenty of material to work with.

Several guests have been invited to dine in a private room of one of Paris' most lavish restaurants. Three men arrive, one by one. They don't know each other, and wonder why the host might have brought them together. Claude (Rick Shipman), a middle-age bookseller, first greets Albert (Cliff Madison), a used-car salesman who loves to paint in oils; cars are his favorite subjects. Claude, with a bit of disdain toward the rather plain and simple Albert, engages with Albert in speculation about the somewhat mysterious circumstances of the party. When aloof and cynical Andre (Eric Anson) arrives, he wastes no time weighing in with his disdain of Claude, Albert and the whole prospect of spending time with people he doesn't know, and doesn't care to know. The only link between the three seems to be that their host, a lawyer, handled their divorces. Perhaps, they wonder, their host is providing an opportunity to meet interesting new women. But there are only six settings at the table, and if the host and his wife are included in the party, the math becomes all wrong for their theory.

It wouldn't be fair to disclose how the nature of group's makeup evolves, but the arrival of Mariette (Maxine Gillespie), Yvonne (Shanna Brock) and Gabrielle (Susan Kovitz) certainly contributes lots of humor and a bit of pathos to the party. It wouldn't, however, disclose too much to say that the plot takes a bit of a turn, a twist which, although plausible, is certainly different in tone than the playful bantering at the show's beginning.

Although director Sabian Trout and her cast handle the transition well, Simon's hybrid approach is not truly successful; it feels awkward. It's certainly not that "serious" comedy is by nature unsuccessful; it's that this particular example doesn't excel. Perhaps the story's turn toward the serious doesn't provide time to develop the depths Simon seems to want to plumb. Although the script never really loses Simon's great humor, it absolutely demands that we invest a different sensibility as Simon leads us to a conclusion. It's like all marriages: Sometimes they work; sometimes they don't. This particular marriage of funny and feeling is not wholly successful.

The actors generally do solid jobs developing their characters, and Trout treats the private dining room like a chaotic but classy corral, trying to round up these often uncooperative folks, who from time to time bolt for an exit or disappear into the washroom through a diminutive door designed to serve Napoleon. (However, Trout surely could have come up with more creative business than having the characters constantly crisscrossing the stage to pour champagne.) The group excels in its timing and has no trouble eliciting laughs with Simon's dependably witty words. They create an inviting, light-hearted energy and an effective pace, and we are easily drawn into their world.

Richard and Amanda Gremel's attractive set effectively suggests an opulent dining room, but Amanda Gremel's costumes are a mixed bag. Theaters producing plays on small budgets certainly face challenges, but attention to details (like properly hemmed pants) would go far in making a more professional visual impression.

Although The Dinner Party is not one of Simon's best, it's hard not to be charmed by his great comic heart and his characters' clever comebacks. LTW's production may not offer a sumptuous feast, but it's certainly a tasty treat.

An absolutely adequate one.

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