Neil Simon's 31st play, The Dinner Party, now at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, skips the meal and serves up a big fat cream puff. It looks delicious, but bite in and there's just the slightest hint of filling inside an empty shell.
This two-act exercise is an airy and utterly unconvincing confection about six guests invited to a black-tie affair in a private dining room of a fancy Paris restaurant. One by one the men arrive first: Albert (Tom Lenaghen), a twitchy shlemiel whose hobby is painting portraits of cars on his rental lot; Claude (Kim Titus), a nervous bookseller; and Andre (Dennis G.W. Millegen), a snooty haberdasher who hides insecurity behind sarcastic putdowns and a permanent smirk.
Why are they there, they wonder, helping themselves to flutes of champagne? All three are middle-aged, divorced and on the make, so they fantasize about the babes they hope will occupy the three other chairs at the table. But where is their host, the lawyer who handled their splits?
He never arrives, but the women do. They're the exes (Lisa Fairchild, Sue Loncar, Cindee Mayfield), all dressed up and not too thrilled about being lured to a party where their dinner companions turn out to be much-despised former spouses. Worst yet, there's no food forthcoming and someone has locked the door. They can't leave and can't eat. Quel bummer.
What begins as Simon's shot at a frothy Molière-style farce devolves by the second act into one of those self-actualization seminars popular during the Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice era. It's as if Simon, desperate for an idea, assigned himself to write about three divorced couples forced to confront each other after years of estrangement.
But why Paris? There's nothing French about these people or their situation. This kooky party could be in Keokuk or Cucamunga. The characters are distinctly American, and so are the jokes. "Do you like Fragonard?" Claude asks Albert, who answers, "Not before dinner, no."
Though they guzzle booze nearly nonstop for two hours (and on empty stomachs!), unfortunately no one ever gets tipsy. CTD's bubbly cast adds the much-needed fizz to the proceedings. Lenaghen and Fairchild are wonderful as the bumbling painter and chattering magpie who've married and divorced each other twice. They resolve some old hurts and by the end seem ready for a third trip to the altar.
Mayfield, one of Dallas' most versatile actresses, finally gets to play a vamp, and she makes the conniving Gabrielle, ex-wife of the clothier, evil and elegant. Loncar does gawky slapstick as Mariette, a claustrophobic novelist. But would Neil Simon really have us believe that a woman in a short, fancy dress would clamber up on a chair to dismantle an air vent or get down on all fours to stick her snout under the door?
None of it makes much sense. It's not laugh-out-loud funny enough to join the ranks of Simon's great comedies--Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, The Sunshine Boys--and the flaky construction switches too abruptly from farce to ferocious arguments. Only at the end do the three flawed couples stop shouting and settle down to eat. It's the rest of us who leave The Dinner Party feeling peckish.
Kilos of sparkly pixie dust rain down on stage and audience at Peter Pan, now winding up a two-week run at the Music Hall at Fair Park. The stuff works. This giddy musical lights up the child inside even the sourest cynic. Swept into Cathy Rigby's magical performance as the boy in green tights, yours truly joined the moppets clapping like mad to keep Tinkerbell alive. There will be no pan of Pan on this page.
This splendid production marks the end of Rigby's decade-long run as the J.M. Barrie character. Now old enough to make a believable Mama Rose, Rigby is still in tiptop shape, bringing a rough-and-tumble side to Neverland's chief gypsy. With her raspy voice and gymnastic cartwheels and handstands all over John Iocavelli's storybook sets, Rigby makes Peter a wild-eyed changeling. He is, after all, a boy so wounded by his mother's abandonment that he can't stand a gentle touch. His Lost Boys likewise are kids who fell out of prams and were forgotten.
Good fairy tales are built on such tragedies. And there must be a proper villain whom the forces of good can smite. I was smitten by this production's bad guy, Captain Hook, played as a super-sexy gigolo by handsome Howard McGillin, a Broadway veteran of many a Sondheim show, plus more than three years behind the mask in Phantom of the Opera. Doing the tango with his pirates (the gayest bunch of shipmates ever to walk a plank), it's easy to see why the croc that swallowed the clock wants to crunch the captain. This Hook's one tasty morsel.
Thanks to excellent work by director Glenn Casale and choreographer Patti Colombo, Peter Pan's three acts (with two intermissions) zip by in a blur of crazy, frenetic energy. In the tribal "Ugg-a-Wugg" number pitting Tiger Lily's Indians against Peter's Lost Boys, dancers spin and leap at warp speed.
Live, Tinkerbell, live!
In a weekend packed with new shows, I also saw Second Thought Theatre's Earth and Skyat Frank's Place atop the Dallas Theater Center. At least I think that's what I saw. The stage was so dark I could make out only dim silhouettes of the actors. I've seen more wattage coming off glow-in-the-dark nail polish. Lighting designer Travis Watson needs to get his eyes checked. And after straining for two hours to make out the shadowy figures in Douglas Post's murder mystery, I was squinting like one of the mole people.
This is the season closer for Second Thought, which up to this one has staged simple but impressive productions of diverse material. Earth and Sky is a noir-ish drama (perhaps Watson took the noir too literally) that plays with time. As a poet-librarian named Sarah (Allison Tolman) tries to sleuth out who murdered her boyfriend David (Rhett Henckel), we see (or in this case, hear) the couple's 10-week relationship unfold backward to their first encounter.
Actually, even as a radio play, Earth and Sky works pretty well. The story is all contained in the dialogue, which has the clipped rhythms of Dashiell Hammett. The plot's twists and turns are right out of The Maltese Falcon. There's a crooked cop (Tom Parr IV) in the mix, and a bartender (Joey Oglesby) who might or might not be trustworthy.
This troupe knows good acting. Tolman is one to watch, an unconventional, earthy beauty who sparks some real heat in her smoochy scenes with Henckel.
At least I think that's who it was. Hard to tell without my miner's helmet.
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