Simple Simon

Imitation being the sincerest form of show business, Neil Simon simply imitated one of his own successful formulas with California Suite, the comedy now getting a fine go-round at the Richardson Theatre Centre.

The premise--one hotel room, four different stories--already had worked in Plaza Suite, the 1968 Broadway hit set in Manhattan's Plaza Hotel. Eight years after that, Simon invented four new comic one-acts and set them in a sunny suite at the posh Beverly Hills Hotel. The film California Suite, starring Jane Fonda, Maggie Smith, Michael Caine, Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor, is notable because it did better box office than the stage version and won Simon his only Academy Award (for a script adapted from another medium).

But then came the 1980s, and, desperate for an idea after a slump with Chapter 2 and The Good Doctor, Simon unwisely reached back for something he could count on. He ended up strangling the last vestiges of originality from the hotel-suite format with London Suite, a dreary rehash of old jokes and cliché characters that eventually made it to television in the 1990s as one of the worst movies-of-the-week ever produced (Kelsey Grammer and Julia Louis-Dreyfus wisely leave it off their lists of credits).

California Suite, however, was still Neil Simon of the mid-1970s, sharp and funny. The old quipmeister is a genius at two-character scenes, particularly those involving spouses caught in highly charged dilemmas. This play presents four such face-offs--two bittersweet, two out-and-out farcical. One of each works. The other two just sort of limp along on their Simonized rhythm of one-two-three punch lines. And even those aren't too bad. Even so-so Simon is several degrees better than anybody else when it comes to stage comedy.

In the Richardson Theatre Centre production, the cast thoroughly understands the staccato pace of the material, and director Rachael Lindley lets them underplay the laughs. That works best in the intimate performance space here. Set designers Charles A. Alexander and Joseph Crisalli let their pastel-hued hotel suite setup spill right out into and around the audience. You're so close to the action, you're tempted to snatch a grape from the fruit basket on the end table.

The production also slyly updates some of Simon's now-ancient pop-culture references, dropping names like Britney Spears, Bill Gates and Sarah Jessica Parker into the 26-year-old script.

Scene 1, "The Visitors From New York," finds a couple of middle-aged exes, Hannah and William, in an awkward Thanksgiving Day reunion that they spend battling over custody of their 17-year-old daughter. Hannah (played by statuesque Melissa Tucker) is a snotty New York City magazine editor who dismisses the palm-tree-and-latte ambience of Los Angeles. Ex-hubby William (Gene Sessa) is a semi-successful screenwriter who wants their daughter to live with him and finish out her senior year of high school in Beverly Hills.

Seeing William again, years after their divorce, Hannah is on the defensive, making fun of her ex's Rodeo Drive wardrobe and youthful appearance. "Who cuts your hair?" Hannah asks. "That boy who does Carrot Top?"

William has shed his Upper East Side pessimism (and his shrink) and fully embraced the om of the good vibe. Hannah doesn't buy it. "You're the kind of man who'd end the world's famine problem by having them all eat out," she says.

The scene ends with a heavy dose of pathos as Hannah hands over her daughter to William, but the actors don't pound the minor notes too heavily. Tucker is believable as a cool, ambitious editor (even with her steel magnolia twang), and Sessa, a slightly wooden actor, stands back and lets Tucker take the focus.

Scene 2, "The Visitors From Philadelphia," is the one worth the price of the ticket. It turns into a hilarious tour de force for its two main actors, Chuck E. Moore and Kelli Jeray. Moore plays Marvin, a hapless schlemiel who wakes up to find he's sharing his bed with a passed-out hooker. Marvin's wife, Millie (Jeray), is due in from Philly any moment (they're attending a nephew's bar mitzvah), and Marvin starts sweating like a bull moose when he can't budge the comatose cookie.

This scene is Feydeau farce à la Simon, packed with huge, cartoonish physical comedy (like Marvin trying to heave-ho the sleepy ho by shoving her under the bed butt-first). When Millie does turn up and susses out the adulterous situation, she does what any jet-lagged woman with lost luggage and menstrual cramps would do. She flops down on the bed next to the drunken bim and has a good, Lucy-esque bawl.

"If she's a hooker, I'm gonna divorce you!" Millie wails. "If she's someone you know, I'm gonna kill you!"

Moore and Jeray are gems. He has the abundant physical heft of a Zero Mostel. Jeray has spot-on comic timing and the unself-conscious confidence of character actresses like Maureen Stapleton and Nancy Walker. And we mustn't overlook Morgan Spollin as the comatose lady of the evening. Her floppy ponytail deserves its own curtain call.

Scene 3 finds "The Visitors From London" checking into the suite to prepare for the Academy Awards. Simon has called this "the best piece of short-form writing I've ever done." Well, maybe not. But it's pretty darn funny, and if you ever happen across the movie of California Suite on cable, this segment, starring Maggie Smith and Michael Caine, is the only one worth stopping to watch.

These hotel guests are Oscar-nominated British actress Diana Nichols and her bisexual, antiques-dealing husband, Sidney. The scene shows them dressing for the Oscars, Diana tossing back tumblers of gin to quell her angst about being nominated against Meryl Streep and "the one with the big boobs." Sidney does his best to calm her, but everything seems to go wrong. Even Diana's green velvet evening gown has an upsetting flaw--a rather large hump on one shoulder that she thinks makes her look like Richard III.

We take up the couple again in their post-Oscars return to the hotel. Diana is disappointed and drunk, having pulled an embarrassing Courtney Love-esque scene at the Governors' Ball. She disintegrates into an unhappy diatribe about her lousy career, unsatisfying marriage and lost looks.

The repartee flies fast and furiously between Diana and Sidney. As details of their rather special relationship are revealed, the scene shifts into a more somber mood. Not only has Diana not come home with the little bald statue, she's going back home to London with a little bald man who'd rather be married to Rupert Everett.

These may be over-the-top characters, but the dialogue of "The Visitors From London" rings true. Neil Simon knows these people all right. He's summed up their narcissistic insecurities perfectly. And actors Mary Lyons and Doug Fowler, while not believably British, carry themselves with an aristocratic air and serve the script admirably.

Scene 4, "The Visitors From Chicago," is the weakest entry in this quartet. This one finds two couples, Mort and his wife, Beth, and Stu and wife Gert, winding up a long vacation together. A little too long, it turns out. Stu is fed up with Mort calling all the shots on their tour of the West Coast. "I had a better vacation when I had my hernia operation," Stu barks.

The scene erupts into a clumsy, madcap duel between the two men, who circle each other like Lacoste-clad sumo wrestlers. They fence with tennis rackets and bite each other's ankles.

It's pretty silly and only a little bit funny. The actors in Richardson know what they're doing, though. Donna Fotschky is awfully good as Beth, who hobbles around on a busted ankle, and Michael Murray, as her hubby, Mort, is a blustery gas bag with a heart of gold. Charles A. Alexander is terrific as beleaguered Stu, who just can't stomach the endless Japanese restaurants on Mort's rigid itinerary. Playing Stu's bubbly wife, Gert, is Lise Alexander. Yep, the actors are married in real life. Good casting.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner