Linda Golden

Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite at Riverfront Community Players

The Riverfront Community Players made the perfect artistic decision to present Plaza Suite just before summer. It’s doubtful that Neil Simon’s pessimistic, but comical, take on marriage would’ve been a good choice for Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving weekend or the Holiday Season. I attended the June 9th evening performance at the Samuel M. Ridgway Middle School in Edgewater Park. Linda Golden directed.

Plaza Suite seemed a bit of a misnomer for this Neil Simon piece. For in it, the playwright provided three takes on marriage that were anything but ‘sweet.’ The show consisted of three separate acts involving different characters. Each occurred in Suite 719 of the Plaza Suite Hotel. The first allowed audiences to witness the disintegration of a 23 (or 24) year marriage. Act II placed two affection starved characters in the same hotel room. The male lead had endured three failed marriages. The woman, lips loosened by liquor, let out that her marriage was imploding. The finale showed a bride too timorous to leave the bathroom on her wedding day. She loved her fiancé, but she feared that their marriage would become like her parents’.

See what I mean about not staging this show from November through February?

Mr Simon subtitled the first act Visitor from Mamaroneck. In this vignette, Karen Nash (played by Chrissy Wick) planned on celebrating a romantic anniversary with her husband, Sam (played by Zach Wishnefsky). For this event, she reserved the same suite where they spent their honeymoon. The festivities turned into anything but joyous within moments of Sam’s entering the room. The two got into an argument regarding the precise date and year of their marriage. They also disputed Karen’s age. The subtext showed a marriage in despair. Sam’s behavior demonstrated his experiencing a ‘mid-life crisis.’

Chrissy Wick turned in a superb performance as the dutiful wife. Ms. Wick portrayed a woman yearning for her husband’s affections who steadily realized she couldn’t have them. She transitioned from a happily married woman into a figure coping with an unexpected tragedy very well. Her tears at scene’s end seemed genuine.

As Neil Simon wrote this script, the character still needed to make the audience laugh: with physical humor. Ms. Wick didn’t disappoint. While wearing a single galosh, she got laughs as she dragged her foot across the floor.

Zach Wishnefski portrayed the austere, career oriented husband. The performer selected a warm voice that well suited the role. Mr. Wishnefsky made Sam into a man always in control. Whether barking orders into the phone or (repeatedly) correcting his wife, he always remained in command…until he told his wife he didn’t know what he wanted out of life. The performer brought out this change very credibly. He played a well-ordered man suffering from inner turmoil that even he didn’t understand. Mr. Wishnefsky executed this task with profound ability.

The Visitor from Hollywood skit comprised Act II. In this one, successful Hollywood producer Jesse Kiplinger (played by Marc Steinberg) invited his high school flame Muriel Tate (played by Amy Bannister) whom he hadn’t seen in 17 years to…wait for it…Suite 719 at the Plaza Suite Hotel. Following three failed marriages, and dealing with insincere Hollywood types, he longed to reconnect with the one woman he believed “authentic.” Star struck at first by her high school beau’s success, Muriel became very nervous. She imbibed a series of vodka stingers to help her relax. In the process, she revealed her own marital woes.

Marc Steinberg played the jaded Hollywood power broker very well. He talked in a nonchalant fashion about the famous people with whom he worked. While discussing his own capability for making profitable movies he sounded bored. During the scene’s opening, Mr. Steinberg convinced the audience Jesse was a lothario looking to score with his former girlfriend. By its end he transitioned the character into a person seeking a more meaningful relationship. Mr. Steinberg portrayed this change very convincingly.

Amy Bannister made Muriel the funniest character in the show. When she first appeared on stage, she fidgeted and commented about how “nervous” she felt in the presence of such a famous producer. I enjoyed how she contradicted herself with her dialog. After using a hairdressing appointment as her reason for needing to leave, she kept changing the time. When Mr. Steinberg questioned the equivocation, her riposte “it’s flexible” made the audience chuckle. As Ms. Bannister’s character continued drinking, she spoke with the slurred speech and loosened inhibitions of someone under the influence. The performer fused this with her dialog to make Muriel a joy to watch.

The Visitor from Forest Hills made up the most comical scene. Mimsey Hubley (played by Jaclyn Clark) locked herself in the bathroom on her wedding day. Norma Hubley (played by Lisa Croce) and Roy Hubley (John Hughes) spent the act attempting to coax her out of it. When they couldn’t, they determined to discover her reason for doing so.

Following the show, I spoke with Lisa Croce. She said that she and Mr. Hughes worked together in the past. It showed. The two displayed marvelous stage chemistry with one another in Plaza Suite.

With the nature of the situation, Mr. Hughes’ dialog contained many comical lines. The performer expressed them flawlessly. It’s ironic that his best stage time entailed non-verbal communication. After speaking with his daughter off stage, he re-entered with a forlorn look on his face. His expression allowed me to guess what she told him. That’s superb acting.

Lisa Croce possesses a gift for delivering comical lines with aplomb. She didn’t disappoint in Plaza Suite. My favorite occurred when the character’s daughter slipped a note through the bathroom door. Mimsey wrote that she wanted to speak with her father. She’d scribbled it on the only source available. Ms. Croce commented, “It figures she’d write it on that” in reference to the toilet paper.

Ms. Croce also displayed some exceptional non-verbal cues of her own. Her best took place when Roy said something to the effect, “I did my best raising her. I don’t know why she’s like that.” I found Ms. Croce’s expression even funnier than the punch line. Only someone as talented as she could get laughs with a serious look.

Mr. Simon crafted each scene very well. All contained strong conflict. He added some surprise plot twists that made Plaza Suite a solid work of drama. The script did contain some poor dialog, however. I’ve written before that one can’t blame actors for bad writing. It’s not fair to criticize them for following instructions as Shakespeare wrote, to “speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue.” (Hamlet Act 3, Scene 2) It is, however, appropriate to criticize playwrights for not providing them better material with which to work.

The Visitor from Hollywood section began with an excessive amount of backstory. At times I thought the actors were reading their characters’ biographies. I give Mr. Steinberg and Ms. Bannister credit for doing their best to make the lines sound like a natural conversation.

While worrying that his daughter may cancel her wedding, Roy Hubley talked about the wedding’s cost. And talked about it. And talked about it some more. At one point, I wanted to shout out, “I get it! A wedding’s expensive! Next!” Mr. Hughes worked around this by pacing and talking like someone muttering in disgust. He put on a clinic for how actors can handle getting stuck with bad dialog.

I would also credit performers Jackie Clark and Bill Upham for their contributions to the production.

Neil Simon found the humor in marital troubles. The cast and crew of the Riverfront Community Players made them absolutely entertaining in Plaza Suite. While the show wrapped this weekend, we can look forward to watching these performers apply their craft to other tragedies of the human condition in the future. Hopefully, they won’t make us wait until Thanksgiving to do so.

 

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