In the sterile environment of hotel rooms, relationships can begin, end, rekindle and be put on hold. The same room can hold hundreds of secrets, each bearing witness to different important moments in its occupants’ lives. This is especially true in Neil Simon’s play Plaza Suite, currently running at the Morgan-Wixson Theater in Santa Monica.
The comedy, which was nominated for best play in the 1968 Tony Awards, takes place entirely in room 719 at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. Each act focuses on a different storyline and couple.
First, the audience is introduced to Sam and Karen, a struggling married couple returning to their honeymoon suite. Karen hopes to bring romance back to their relationship, but Sam has his mind on other things. The second act tells the story of Jesse, a Hollywood producer, and Muriel, Jesse’s long-ago girlfriend. Jesse invites her to his suite to rekindle their affair, but Muriel struggles to come to terms with reuniting with a celebrity.
And finally, Norma and Roy must go to extremes to get their daughter, Mimsy, out of the locked bathroom, just minutes before her wedding.
Each story intertwines comedy and drama, real moments and ones that are slightly absurd. As expected considering the accolades, Simon’s writing is incredibly strong in this piece, and the production relies heavily on his genius.
In most productions, including this one, each of the couples are portrayed by the same two actors, in this case Andrea Stradling and Howard Lockie. Both Stradling and Lockie do a fine job of morphing themselves into the three distinct characters they play and fully commit to the insanity that characterize Simon’s characters. It is clear they worked hard to distinguish between their various roles. However, the nuances in their performances suffer, with each portrayal becoming almost caricatures in each act. By working to make each character so distinct, they lose some commonalities of humanity — the play seems more like a self-conscious performance rather than stories of real lives being witnessed by an audience. They are convincing enough and definitely adopt each new character, but their struggles to make each character distinct leads to a loss of some realism.
Lockie, in particular, struggles with this; each of his characters feel very one-dimensional, especially his portrayal of Sam in the first act. He is still entertaining, but becomes less surprising after a while as his two levels becomes clear — intense and more intense. Both actors had issues with creating real, multifaceted inner conflict. Sam seems content with leaving his wife of 23 years, and Muriel seems merely star-struck by Jesse, not worried about what her life could become.
It is in the third act when the two actors let go, because of constant run-ins, whacking and yelling at the door to the bathroom. This is Simon’s silliness at its purest; his writing has the audience in stitches as these two characters attempt to solve one of commedy’s age-old jokes: trying to get through a locked door.
The two supporting roles are covered by Alicia Craff (Mimsy, Jean) and Karol Garrison (bellhop, waiter, Borden). Though they have limited stage time, both actors shine in their roles, particularly Craff as Mimsy and Garrison as the straight-faced Borden and a comical waiter. They are able to entertain and contribute to the plot, without stealing the focus from the rest of the story.
Despite the criticisms, it is important to note that the Morgan-Wixson Theater is the only non-professional theater in Santa Monica, a quirk which puts the performance into perspective. Simply put, it would be unfair to compare the production to a production at the Ahmanson or Pantages. These actors are not paid or part of unions; naturally the talent pool is different. And in spite of this, these actors perform with so much enthusiasm and passion that this aspect does not negatively impact the production very greatly.
The theater itself is interesting — a fairly nondescript building in the outskirts of Santa Monica, which from the street does not at all give the impression of a 200-seat theater. The wood-paneled theater and the lobby complete with knickknacks brings one back to evenings spent in a grandparent’s basement. The appearance fits the audience demographic, mostly older in age, with few under the age of 30.
The set was also a bit shabby, appearing to be entirely unearthed from a thrift store and not shined up much. The couch had sagging fabric, an odd fake wall running through the middle of the stage seemed like a cop-out and a duvet cover straight from shiny Target didn’t quite fit together. This, along with the very yellow walls, did not create a canvas as enjoyable as the actors’ performances.
Despite the somewhat cut-rate set and old-fashioned theater, the actors keep the audience laughing for the entire three hours. This was in large part because of Simon’s writing — his comic genius, 40 years later, still stands true.
Plaza Suite runs through Feb. 10 at the Morgan-Wixson Theater in Santa Monica. Tickets can be found at www.morgan-wixson.org