***/***** Three out of five stars
Broadway, unlike off-Broadway or regional theater, has a special advantage the others don’t: the ability to attract incredibly famous actors to the stage. Consequently, even if the play they’re in isn’t critically acclaimed, fans will still flock to the theater to see their idol(s). Producers don’t really care what sells the seats, just as long as they continue to sell. This, no doubt, is part of the motivation for casting husband-and-wife team Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick in a new revival of Neil Simon’s 1968 mega hit, Plaza Suite, now playing on Broadway at the Hudson Theatre.
In his prime, Neil Simon was considered one of the greatest writers of theater, film and television. His oeuvre illustrates, if not defines, an entire era, particularly the late 1960s and early 70s. Many of his major works, notably The Odd Couple, have been successful in countless revivals because of their timelessness and universality. Then there’s Plaza Suite.
Plaza Suite was, in part, another in a string of mid-century midlife crisis stories that sprang out of (or into) popular culture in the late 60s. Composed of three one-act vignettes, it’s an examination of marriage in a time when the reasons for couples staying married was becoming less and less evident. It is a (mildly) interesting, but utterly archaic artifact of a time when marriage norms fit into a mold ideally suited for sitcoms, consisting of an alpha-type, bread-winning male and a milquetoast, insecure female. The play feels as if someone took three mildly witty New Yorker cartoons and turned them into excessively long and over-extended vignettes that stopped being amusing after the first five minutes.
In the first, and most meaningful story (“Visitor from Mamaroneck”), a long married couple discovers serious fissures in their relationship at around the time of their 22nd or 23rd anniversary, depending on which partner is making the calculation as Sam (Broderick) tactlessly points out to Karen (Parker): “When it comes to money or dates or ages, you are absolutely unbelievable.” The story, at times touching and melancholy, starts sweetly, with the wife, Karen, checking into the room she’s sure is the suite where she and Sam spent their wedding night (no surprise, it’s not). Her desire to have a romantic anniversary with Sam, complete with sexy negligee, hurts our hearts more and more as her plans unravel.
The following two acts, by contrast, are insipid and scarcely worthy of a Saturday Night Live sketch. In “Visitor from Hollywood,” the couple are former high school lovers. Broderick is now a Hollywood mega producer and Parker is a New Jersey housewife and an utter sycophant who’s interested in her ex not for nostalgic reasons, but because of his movie star connections. Broderick plays an Austin Powers-type swinger (the only thing missing is “grooovy baby!”) and Parker plays a klutzy double-talker. This act is particularly illustrative of the fact that while the two are wonderful actors who imitate well, neither are physical comics nor slapstick specialists. The characters would’ve been better played by any number of Saturday Night Live actors (Martin Short, Kristin Wiig, Cheri O’Teri, Jimmy Fallon) who were specifically trained to clown on stage.
In the third act, “Visitor from Flushing,” Parker and Broderick are parents of a bride who is due to be married in the hotel’s lobby, but who will not come out of the bathroom, having suffered a case of nerves. Broderick employs more mimicked slapstick, looking like a second-rate Tim Conway imitator who’s panicking about losing his deposit; and Parker’s “mother from Queens” is channeling Madge Maisel’s raspy-voiced mother-in-law in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” but a lot less funny.
Plaza Suite features quite a number of top-notch features that should, but don’t, add up to a great play. John Lee Beatty’s set looks exactly like a room in the Plaza Hotel (complete with nice views), which limits any imaginative design. The clothing (Jane Greenwood) is gorgeous, but looks like costumes, not things ordinary people would wear. There seems to be a trend in theater, television and film toward making 60s and 70s fashion extraordinary. These beautiful couture pieces would have been found primarily in the pages of Vogue or in Jackie O’s closet, but not on the backs of even upper middle class New Yorkers. High fashion simply was not as accessible then as it is today. Director John Benjamin Hickey does nothing to pull all these appealing elements together on the stage with any sort of cohesiveness or believability. What we end up with is a collection of attractive theatrical components (acting, set, costuming) assembled on stage that may, in fact, satisfy or even excite many an audience member. But what we don’t get is memorable theater worthy of critical praise.
Plaza Suite. Thru June 26 at the Hudson Theatre (141 West 44th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues). www.thehudsonbroadway.com
Photos: Joan Marcus