You may have heard that if you don’t already have tickets for the current Eisenhower Theater run of Neil Simon’s The Dinner Party, you’re fresh out of luck. The entire four-week run was sold out before opening night, so those who didn’t plan ahead will have to wait to see it on Broadway.
Not that the producers have actually decided to take it to Broadway—after lukewarm West Coast reviews, it’s almost surprising that they brought it here—but when the same Washington Post style section critic who called Lost in Yonkers (which went on to win a Pulitzer) proof that Simon didn’t know jack about dramatic construction says in her opening paragraph that Dinner Party is “laugh-out-loud funny [and] also Simon’s emotionally richest play,” you figure it pretty much has to have a life after the KenCen.
Does it deserve the bouquets? Well, it’s certainly funny. Nobody writes boulevard comedy better than Simon, and in this play he’s mining a mother lode of divorce humor. His setup—artificial but efficient—involves six Parisians who have been invited to dine at a luxurious hotel without being told who else will be there. The men arrive first—Claude (John Ritter), a prickly rare books dealer; Albert (Henry Winkler), a nebbishy used-car salesman; and Andre (Len Cariou), the pompous owner of a chain of fashion boutiques. The only thing they seem to have in common is the divorce lawyer who invited them. But he didn’t say why, and he isn’t coming, and it slowly dawns on them that their partners for the evening are likely to be their exes.
Then the women show up—sardonic novelist Mariette (Anette Michelle Sanders), who was married to Claude and subsequently had a fling with Andre; skittish Yvonne (Veanne Cox), who married Albert not once, but twice; and elegant Gabrielle (Penny Fuller), who seems to know more and be less nervous than all the rest of them combined—which means, of course, that she’s likeliest to be surprised by what ensues.
Simon has always been deft with the sort of comic rhythms being tapped out in the first half of The Dinner Party. It would be hard to improve on Claude’s retort when Mariette says he was never so materialistic when they were married (“Of course not. I still had my material”), or Yvonne’s snippy response to the silent treatment she’s getting from Albert after their two divorces (“I can hear every single word you’ll never say to me”).
But Simon doesn’t seem to want jokes to be this play’s stock in trade, at least not after the evening’s midpoint. In fact, he has reportedly been winnowing them out (the play has undergone constant revision since it premiered in Los Angeles) in order to emphasize The Dinner Party’s more dramatic points about love and marital compromise. This, presumably, is the “emotionally richest” stuff the Post’s critic was talking about. And let’s note that the author’s phrasing is no less artful when he’s courting sighs (“You weren’t the wrong man, Albert. We were the wrong couple”) than when he’s going for laughs. He even sneaks in an occasional pun that’s designed simply to please the ear, not tickle the funny bone, as when someone notes quietly that “the malady lingers on.”
Simon is, however, aware enough of the artifice of his situation and of the perfectly reasonable nobody-would-ever-do-that objections it raises to cover himself. “Why have we dragged these puzzled minor players into the plot?” asks Andre. And when the conversation reaches the point where any sane person would flee the restaurant, Simon simply padlocks the doors and has Claude state the obvious: “Ah…Act 3, the denouement. It’s a goddamn Agatha Christie dinner.”
Do such self-conscious devices constitute cheating? Not really. But they do short-circuit emotions in much the same way punch lines do. Fortunately, the audience, having been rewarded amply with guffaws in the evening’s first half, is happy to go along when the author nudges the play’s conclusion toward a forgiving sort of wistfulness. John Rando’s staging modulates the mood delicately but firmly, from broad introductory business involving spilled drinks, panic attacks, and celebratory leaps to softer sequences in which the humor is at once delicate and down-to-earth.
The performers, though they hail from varying realms of showbiz and are called on to act in radically differing styles, make a surprisingly integrated ensemble. Winkler and Cox clearly have a ball as the evening’s low comedians, affecting schlumpy postures and an intellectual dimness that is so sweetly managed it somehow doesn’t smack of condescension. As the show’s fiercest marital competitors, Ritter and Sanders are a matched set of vipers, hissing ripostes at each other and clarifying Simon’s dramatic structure by commenting on it from their characters’ literary vantage points. As Andre, the evening’s stuffed shirt, Cariou is so authoritatively peremptory that he can even get away with the line “Your womb became a receptacle for all my self-loathing.” And Fuller is graceful enough as the party’s manipulative hostess to take the edge off an obsessive character who might otherwise come across as a stalker.
John Lee Beatty’s opulent setting surrounds them all with a gilt-edged, gently curved Baroque mural of lovers frolicking in the woods. It’s lusty yet tinged with a faint aura of ruefulness. The dramatic frolic out front is more modern, but infuses sexual and romantic coupling with much the same mixture of randiness and sentimentality. Cynics won’t be wrong when they call Simon’s script a tad contrived, but it’s also acute emotionally and smart dramatically. If this Dinner Party weren’t already SRO, I’d be suggesting that you book a table forthwith.
In In Good Company: The Kosher Edition, the audience does sit at tables, and with all the blintzes, linzer tortes, pretzels, and other goodies the producers make available for purchase, it would be possible to put together a reasonable dinner party.
The setting is Grossinger’s, a Catskills resort, where comic Ruby Aaron (Pam Sherman) is doing a standup act filled with the sort of schtick for which the “Jewish Alps” are famous. (Sample joke: “This millennial year is year 5760 in the Jewish calendar, and about 4000 in the Chinese calendar. You know what that means: For almost 2,000 years, Jews had no place to eat on Sunday night.”)
The headliner is just developing a workable comic rhythm when some latecomers arrive noisily in period gowns. “I see dead people,” she quips, then introduces the five who’ve happened by: essayists Dorothy Parker (Caren Anton) and Gertrude Stein (Joan Kelley), entertainers Dinah Shore (Andrea Hatfield) and Fanny Brice (Marilyn Hausfeld), and anarchist Emma Goldman (Mary Wilson), who announces almost as soon as she arrives that she has organized the waiters and sent them out on strike. For a while, the characters interact by challenging each others’ worldviews as Ruby referees, and then the audience gets a shot at asking questions.
If you’ve caught either of Horizons Theatre’s previous In Good Company shows, which were built around literary and political themes, you’ll recognize that Kosher Edition works a couple of intelligent variations on the basic premise. The Grossinger’s setting makes sense of the entertainment sequences (both the Shore and Brice impersonators sing) and provides a logic for the material’s staginess. The improvisations around audience participation have been substantially reduced (to about 15 minutes)—which is probably a good thing. On opening night, “Dinah, would you sing the Chevrolet theme?” was about as probing as the questions got.
If you don’t already know that Shore was Burt Reynolds’ girlfriend, or that Fanny Brice had a nose job, or that Emma Goldman could have brought her boyfriend home to mama (“He might be an assassin, but at least he’s a Jew”), you’ll learn these things from the performance. These In Good Company shows aren’t drama exactly, but, as historical dioramas, they have their charms, and possibilities—The Sports Edition, The Dot-com—abound.
The Kosher Edition actors have researched their characters and can theoretically respond to detailed queries, should any arise. Style is everything in such an exercise, and it’s easy to quibble. On opening night, when Kelley explained Gertrude Stein’s line “a rose is a rose is a rose” by saying “I tried to do in words what Picasso did with paint,” it felt as if she were being more patient than the author would have been. On the other hand, Anton’s Dorothy Parkerism a moment later—”I would have said it only once”—seemed just right. CP