Plaza Suite Revisited at Bickford
Plaza Suite is actually three linked one-act plays in one setting: Suite 719 of New York's fabled Plaza Hotel (late winter, spring, and June). Each play depicts a middle-aged man and woman. It is designed so that two actors perform all six roles. There are supporting roles for two additional players.
Checking in for the first play (A Visitor from Mamaroneck) is Karen, who has come into the City to go out for an anniversary dinner with her husband and to stay over with him in the hotel suite where they had stayed twenty-four years ago on their honeymoon. When her husband Sam arrives, he is distant and disinterested. In fact, Sam will not even go out to dinner with Karen, professing that he must return to his office to work on an important report. Things go downhill from there. Since 1968, I have remembered, with a smile, Sam explaining to Karen that, although he agreed that they had had a good, successful life and raised two good, now adult, children, he now wanted to do it again. However, from the perspective of having raised three children into adulthood, it seems that a middle-aged man would more likely look forward to grandchildren than wanting to again go through child rearing. And in the performance of Duncan M. Rogers, the line is more pathetic than it is funny.
In his pre-show welcoming words to the audience, Artistic Director Eric Hafen alerted us that Plaza Suite, Simon's fifth Broadway play was a transitional one. He and director Barbara Krajkowski certainly have treated it that way. It is still funny (Sam: "Let's be nice to each other."/ Karen: "Who goes first?"). However, it is not as funny nor intended to be as it was in 1968 with George C. Scott and Maureen Stapleton performing under the direction of Mike Nichols. Neil Simon has for the first time moderated his then laugh-a-minute trademark style to make room for depth and emotion. I would never doubt that the redoubtable Scott (hilariously peripatetic and ironic), Stapleton (her pain and desperation overshadowed by Scott's bravura blustering), and Nichols accomplished fully what they were seeking. However, with the more compact, understated performance of Rogers supporting her, Harriett Trangucci makes Karen and her desperate attempts to save her life and marriage the central focus of Mamaroneck. Trangucci has a sweet delicacy that makes Karen's initial bit of ditziness most appealing. Later on, when Karen pulls herself together and, although they will likely be to avail, says all the right things in an effort to dissuade Sam from leaving her, we cannot help but to root for her.
The shift in focus may be attributable to the application of a woman's sensibility by the director. Director Barbara Krajkowski, who is here working at the top of her form, is Artistic Director of New Jersey's Women's Theatre Company.
Although there is nothing as unusually distinctive in the other two plays. In A Visitor from Hollywood Jesse Kiplinger, a highly successful Hollywood producer claiming to be alienated from the calculating women in his circle after fourteen years of failed marriages to "the three worst bitches that you could ever meet," invites Muriel Tate, his high school sweetheart from his hometown of Tenafly (N.J.) to spend the afternoon with him. It is the contrast between the manipulative and suavely sophisticated Jesse and the inane, celebrity worshiping suburban wife and mother who haven't seen each other for seventeen years that provides most of the play's humor. Rogers' understated style works well here as it becomes Jesse's disguise for what he is all about. Trangucci transforms herself into a droll comedienne, bringing a talented veteran actress' full bag of comedic tropes to make every silly notion of Muriel funny and believable. There is some substance here, but, at the end, unlike in Mamaroneck, Simon opts for the funny bone.
The concluding play, A Visitor from Forest Hills has Roy flummoxed and fuming after being called back by his wife Norma from the wedding party downstairs because their daughter, the bride who has gotten cold feet, has locked herself in the bathroom and will not come out. Here, the focusand it is farcicalfalls on Duncan M. Rogers' Roy. When the humor is in the dialogue, Rogers and Trangucci give Simon his full due. Especially funny are the words with which Roy "doesn't" blame Norma for their predicament. Although he seems temperamentally unsuited to broad farce, Rogers is an intelligent actor who, without throwing caution to the wind, manages to keep us entertained and amused.
Brenda Todd and Louis Vetter lend solid, crucial support in their brief roles.
Plaza Suite at the Bickford is fresher and more surprising than I would have imaged. It also provides a terrific showcase for Harriett Trangucci, an acclaimed performer with several New Jersey companies who has repeatedly been designated best actress of the year by the Star-Ledger.
Plaza Suite continues performances (Evenings: Thursday 7:30 pm (4/25 only); Friday, Saturday (excluding 4/27) 8 pm/ Mats. Thursday, Saturday (4/27 only) & Sunday 2 pm) through May 5, 2013, at the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum, 6 Normandy Heights Road, Morristown, New Jersey 07960, Box Office: 973-971-3706; online: www.bickfordtheatre.org.
Plaza Suite by Neil Simon; directed by Barbara Krajkowski