One of my favorite films is Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth, which traces five different stories unfolding simultaneously in five taxicabs around the world. When you clamor into a cab with the sunken seats imprinted with passengers of yesteryear, you are unavoidably aware of your many predecessors. Neil Simon’s 1976 play, California Suite, which is the season opener at South Park Theatre, follows a similar trajectory. All four scenes feature different characters, but are set in the same suite of rooms in the Beverly Hills Hotel. Much like cabs, hotel rooms are heavy with the presence of those who have come before. A fraught sliding glass door to a balcony, the inevitable carpet stains, or a deep scratch on the bathroom counter all conspire to make you consider the long line of overnight guests from hotel opening to your own stay.
Unfortunately, Simon’s stories suffer from a distorted one upmanship. Each one seemingly needs to top the last. There are few quiet moments by the time you get to scene four. You find yourself pining for occupants who would just show up and watch bad TV. Alas, there is no such luck. Scene four descends into mayhem as two vacationing couples go at each other’s throats, quite literally in the case of the husbands. Director Michael Shahen loses control, and the scene descends straight into campiness. Shahen’s fights are as poorly choreographed as a toddler’s punches. The impetus for the fight is exasperation at compounding small annoyances that come from traveling in a group for a prolonged period and trying to satisfy multiple needs sets. The proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back is one wife suffering a tennis injury at the hand of the other couple. The repeated falls on the wife’s injured ankle are predictable slapstick, and the cries of Beth Hollender (Liz Schamming) don’t even sound authentic.
However, scene one is hardly quiet contemplitude. The play opens with divorced couple Hannah (Lesa Donati) and William Warren (Dennis Schebetta) meeting for the first time in nine years to discuss their 17-year old daughter, Jenny. Despite living on opposite coasts – him in Los Angeles and her in New York – it stretches credulity that they wouldn’t have seen each other at some point given their shared child. Shahen does a nice job of stretching the opening tension, letting us discern the nature of their relationship (an affair?) and then if it could trend sexual again as Hannah openly objectifies Bill upon his arrival.
Neil Simon clearly lifted Bill’s New York to LA character shift straight from a Woody Allen movie. Bill has traded in his east coast boozing and smoking for the Angeleno way of mindfulness and running, and gasp, with all that kale, he doesn’t even need an analyst anymore. Shahen has a hard time deciding how to frame Bill, and Schebetta ends up being so vanilla he’s utterly unmemorable, and you can’t buy into his classical guitar playing or mountain climbing. Schebetta’s utter fade into the background demeanor is a foil to his ex, who’s supposed to be a tough as nails New York journalist. Donati is not actress enough to handle Hannah’s emotional range, and her moments of vulnerability are defined by stage blocking. She turns her back on Bill, and that signifies her emotional struggle. There’s little originality in the nipping banter of the divorcees, and predictability makes the piece feel longer than it is.
Scenes two and three bring us married couples with issues. Both wives ultimately want affirmation they matter in their husband’s eyes. In scene two, the philandering Marvin Michaels (Terry Westwood) awakens to find a passed out prostitute in his bed, and memories of the night before slowly creep back through an alcohol-laced veil. He’s unable to rouse and oust the hooker before his wife Millie (Kelly Barefoot) flies in for the bar mitzvah they’re supposed to attend. The necessary hilarity ensues as he tries to hide the sleeping woman’s presence, and we all wait for the proverbial shoe to drop. Westwood sweats profusely on stage, making his efforts that much more realistic. However, Kelly Barefoot is the star of this scene. Her Millie displays a delicate emotional range as she goes from contented wife to casualty of adultery and attempts to process and verbalize what she has seen. The passed out prostitute, while she has no lines, is definitely a major character, yet the program neglects to even include the actress’ name.
In scene three, Academy Award-nominated actress, Diana Nichols (Helga Terre) and her “bisexual homosexual” husband, Sidney (Brian Edward), have flown in from London. The scene is divided between pre and post-awards show. When the couple arrives back at 2:30 am, they look as perfectly polished as when they departed the evening prior, despite both being blitzed. Not giving them mussed hair and sloppier clothes were missed opportunities to visually support the narrative on Shahen’s part. Diana becomes vitriolic after failing to win the Oscar. She pushes Sidney away, screaming “faggot” at him at one point, then begging for his love. Terre handles the part, but she’s ultimately another stereotype, channeling Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard. Edward remains cool throughout, clearly acclimated to her outbursts, which he handles with dry wit and a steady stream of gin and tonics. Edward keeps Sidney on course. He does not pretend to be anything other than what he is, which frustrates the fading Diana who wants him to only worship her – or at least act the part.
Costume designer J. Childe Pendergast keeps the cast firmly frozen in the 1970s, and set designer Kelsey Jamison’s 70s hotel décor stifles an easy translation to the modern day. The themes of love and aspiring to be loved are universal, but Simon chooses the easy laugh and shies away deeper themes, ultimately making the play’s impact much like a freshly cleaned hotel room. There are only traces of what might have been.
South Park Theatre’s production of California Suite continues through May 19th. Learn more and purchase tickets online from South Park Theatre.
Categories: Archived Reviews