For their final production of the 2017-2018 season, the Providence Players have opted for one of the classics in Neil Simon’s “California Suite”.
“It’s fair to say it’s hard to have a proper theater education without Neil Simon,” Janet Koehler Dueweke, who plays the actress Diana, told the News-Press.
The play follows the trials and tribulations of four different sets of guests at a posh Beverly Hills hotel and the conflicts within three unconventional forms of coupledom – a pair of divorcees negotiating a custody battle; an esteemed actress whose frustration over a loss on Oscar night spills over into a squabble with her closeted husband and two couples on a shared vacation whose dynamic of friendship takes the form of a stale marriage – coupled with a traditional marriage that threatens to unravel over a drunken hook-up.
One of “California Suite’s” greatest feats is its voyeuristic feel: There are scenes depicting the characters in ways they would likely never act in public, giving the audience a sense that we’re being invited to revel in their secrets.
The play’s other main strength is that characters jump back and forth through various emotional states in relationship to one another in rapid fire succession. Character A is mad at Character B one minute, the two are happily coexisting the next and then a minute later Character B is at Character A’s throat over something that was entirely insignificant a moment ago.
That Neil Simon is able to pull off such emotionally unstable interpersonal dynamics without giving the viewer whiplash is a near superhuman feat.
“He writes relationships really well and he has real dialogue,” said director Beth Giles-Whitehead on the strength of the play.
One of the age-old debates of theater is whether drama or comedy is more conducive to storytelling. That discussion is reimagined here as “California Suite” can be seen as both comedic and dramatic and your enjoyment of the play will depend on that Rorschach Test of what you see it as.
The play has a lot to say about the nature of coupledom and relationships in all forms that have gone past their expiration date. To the degree that one is moved by this insight, the comedy can feel inorganic and even distracting in some of the scenes.
In the playlet about the actress on Oscar night, her husband has a natural air of wit that serves the dramatic scene by showing a naturally funny character in a serious situation.
The play involving the man hiding his infidelity, however, is overly reliant on repetitive physical humor and ethnic stereotypes. Like the playwright, the angry wife seems painted as Jewish in a manner that served as fodder for many a Borscht Belt comedian. The final playlet involving the two feuding couples reads even more as a Borscht Belt retread with the couples mostly shouting and fighting. This is a shame because Neil Simon writes about people so well that his material should ideally transcend any dated forms of comedy.
“The connectivity between the characters is established beforehand because you know they’re on vacation together and have been doing this for years so they must be close, but you see very little of that in the play,” explained Lou Lehrman, who played one of the feuding husbands.
Conversely if you come into this play primarily moved by the humor, you might miss a lot of the dramatic essence or find the jokeless passages draining.
Like many of the Providence Players’ other plays, the script is unaltered. The acting and direction are both more than capable of the material so it’s hard to fault anyone for this dissonance between the comedic and dramatic aspects of the play. Still, there may have been certain subtleties to be tweaked here and there that could have helped.
In this sense, the purely dramatic playlet concerning the couple negotiating divorce is the most spellbinding because the story of the relationship is unadulterated by any attempts to please the audience. The two divorcees are catching up each other on their lives but the way that they both poke at each other’s weaknesses in a pseudo-flirtatious way as the custody talk starts heating up lends itself to a lot of nail-biting dialogue.
On the whole, the playlets all offer some sort of deep probing experience that serves as a fine capstone to the season.
“California Suite” is playing this weekend at the James Lee Community Center (2855 Annandale Rd. Falls Church). For tickets, visit providenceplayers.org.