You have to give Neil Simon a lot of credit. Commercially speaking, he's the most successful playwright in history and a master of all media. So freaking what if he's been stuck in a half-century rut writing one piece of formulaic crap after another? The masses, washed and otherwise, seem to hang on his every word. He could have continued to write the same play with the same jokes over and over again for the next 20 years and only gotten richer. But he didn't. Who knows why?
After decades serving as a whipping post for critics who were sick of suffering through his shtick, maybe something finally sunk in. Maybe he just needed a little vacation from himself. Simon has said of his adventurous (and, for that matter, disastrous) one-act play, The Dinner Party, "I wanted to try something different." To put it as kindly as possible, Simon should have stayed in Brighton Beach.
Not only is The Dinner Party set in an exclusive Parisian restaurant, it actually reads as if it had been translated from an original French text: first into German, then into Japanese, and then, at last, into English. As a purely academic endeavor, it's a thorough, if pedestrian, exploration of Sartre's "Theatre of Situations," where characters are brought together in a locked room and blindly forced to choose one of two possible exits. One exit leads to certain uncertainty, the other to death. A chipper guy, that Sartre, a real Neil Simon. Anyway, The Dinner Party begins like a frothy Feydeau farce and quickly turns into a bargain-basement redux of No Exit, and as it does so the laughter, scant to begin with, vanishes and is replaced by tedium. Clocking 90 minutes, this play about three divorced couples locked in a room together feels like an eternity.
Playhouse on the Square has gone all out to give Simon's failed absurdist outing a fighting chance. The stellar cast, featuring Ann Marie Hall, Jonathon Lamer, Kyle Barnett, Emily Frye, Ben Hensley, and Leslie Lee Lansky, are uniformly excellent, and they play off one another like pinballs and bumpers. The costumes by Rebecca Powell are definitive. John Sailer's set feels like the kind of palatial environment where Napoleon might have courted Josephine. The only thing wrong with this production is that it ever happened in the first place.
Midway through the show, Claude (Lamer), a failed writer and antique book seller, tells his ex-wife Mariette (Lansky), a successful pulp novelist, that she had the talent he'd always dreamed of having. Mariette, in turn, claims that she had been inspired by the classics Claude introduced her to. They both agree that her books, while popular, are essentially garbage, and they apologize to one another. One senses that this is Simon's way of acknowledging his influences, recognizing how inferior The Dinner Party is and apologizing to his detractors in one fell swoop. It's clearly a case where a writer who has every right to be complacent is wrestling with his creative and intellectual urges, and that almost makes this otherwise unwatchable play watchable. It almost makes you hope that Mr. Simon will try "something different" again. But not quite.
The Dinner Party is at Playhouse through April 19th.
There can be little doubt that playwright Richard Greenberg knows how to use the English language. Without ever seeming the least bit pretentious, he elevates ordinary words to the level of incantations. Dramatically, he uses the same kinds of "little intrigues" that fueled the works of Anton Chekhov. And yet Greenberg's stylish and soulful Three Days of Rain, the Pulitzer Prize finalist that has been hailed far and wide as a modern masterpiece, is really little more than a soap opera that, for all its superficial glory, seems to lack real substance. Consider the great revelations and difficult choices the show focuses on: "Who will inherit the family's inestimably valuable estate?" "Whoever shall the sassy Southern girl marry -- the quiet but brilliant architect or the charming, well-connected but not quite as brilliant architect?" And lastly, "Did my best friend, who is now a soap star, really have sex with my sister sometime in the distant past?" One might best summarize the play with a single sentence: Trust-fund brats have problems too, so B.F.D. But NEXT Stage's production of Three Days of Rain, which closed this past weekend, was a big deal. It was a case where Brian Mott, Michael Gravois, and Kim Justis, three hard-working actors at the top of their game, met with three roles they were all but custom-fitted for and turned in their best performances to date. It was a case where the whole was far greater than the sum of its already great components. Because of the commitment of the actors and Stephen Hancock's all but invisible direction, Three Days of Rain ranks among the best shows to be seen on a Memphis stage in at least the last 10 years. It's a case where you really have to wish that Memphis was a serious theater town: that the production could move to a different theater, continue its run and gain momentum, rather than closing after its appointed three weeks.