‘California Suite’ at Vagabond Players by Amanda Gunther


A fly on the wall of a Beverly Hills Hotel room would get quite the show in California Suite at Vagabond Players. A series of four different happenings occur in that hotel room over the course of one evening. Directed by John F. Ford, this collection Neil Simon’s characters presents a look at love through four different lenses — the lost love of divorce, the saved love of a challenged marriage, the love of a marriage that shouldn’t be, and of course the love between friends.

John F. Ford doubles up as the Set Designer for this show giving the audience a clear depiction of a hotel room. Any hotel room nothing particular to make it stand out to identify location or time, and this vague approach really allows the characters to make the room their own. There is a bed, and matching mahogany furniture — a dressing table and night stand. There are white towels hanging in the bathroom and a phone in the front suite room and in the bedroom. These non-detailed choices allow the room to be a den of sin for the visitors from Philadelphia or a makeshift injury recovery room for the visitors from Chicago.

Using the simple framework of a basic hotel, Costume Designer Victoria Halperin Kuhns defines the characters in smart sensible attire appropriate for their situation, often showing great contrast between the male and female characters. The best display of her work can be seen in the first scene with Hannah (Michele Jenkins Guyton) and Billy (Greg Guyton.) Kuhns presents the uptight high-powered news journalist from New York in Hannah by giving her a serious look with a black pencil skirt and white half jacket complete with sharp shiny black heels. For contrast, Billy the hippie from Beverly Hills is outfitted in a polo style sweater khakis and sneakers. Her contrasting elements are a key note in her design work used throughout the show to highlight these unique characters.

The opening pairing on the stage is Hannah (Michele Jenkins Guyton) and her ex-husband Billy (Greg Guyton). The pair’s acting abilities are a little mismatched. Greg Guyton is very down to earth and real with his character, relaxing into his new California lifestyle as if he’s justifying it not only to the other character on stage but to the audience and himself as well. He delivers his lines with ease, finds purpose when moving from one space on the set to another, and generally feels comfortable with what he’s saying. Michele Guyton, however, presents the feeling of being uncomfortable in her own skin. Simon provides a script full of acidic but witty quips and one-liners and unfortunately many of these fall flat during her delivery, lacking that sting and conviction that could have turned this first scene into an all-star delivery. She also seems to move aimlessly about the space, in and out of the bedroom not really sure what she’s doing and her regular text sounds more like she’s reading to her ex-husband rather than having a conversation with him.

But the second act throttles laugh after laugh at the audience as Marvin (Marc Harber) finds himself in quite the situation. Harber is spastic as he wakes up to discover a surprise in his bed, fretting and frantic as he practically turns somersaults across the room to try and cover up his mistake before his wife arrives. And when Millie (Barbara Pinker) does finally arrive the proverbial shit really does hit the fan. Harber kicks it into overdrive trying madly to convince his wife to stay out of the bedroom. He is extremely physical and in constant motion which seems very realistic for a character in his situation. And Pinker is a show-stopper. With her perfect borderline Philly-Jersey-Jewish accent and motherly ways she kvetches and riles against her husband. The two share great chemistry even if it does meet a good deal of strain along the way.

Sidney Nichols (Michael P. Sullivan), Hannah Warren (Michele Jenkins Guyton), William Warren (Greg Guyton), and Diana Nichols (Hillary Mazer) (clockwise from bottom left). Photo by Tom Lauer.

The opening for act two is perhaps the most entertaining of the stories you will encounter during the show. Diana (Hillary Mazer) and her husband Sidney (Michael P. Sullivan) have been flown from London to California to attend the Oscars Ceremony for which Diana has been nominated for Best Actress. Mazer and Sullivan master the art of British repartee — the wit flings fast and the zingers sting with undertones of love and affection. Mazer is comical and her banter with Sullivan grows increasingly so the more they imbibe. And like all couples who have had a few too many drinks the arguments between them grow to be outrageous once they return home from the ceremony. But there is more than meets the eye with these two humorous characters. The honesty and realistic raw approach they each take to their confessions near the end of the scene is actually worthy of an Oscar or a Tony.

The final scene is sheer physical comedy. A married couple Mort (Michael Panzarotto) and Beth (Karin Crighton) are vacationing with their best friends who are also married, Gert (Polly Hurlburt) and Stu (Blaise D’Ambrosio). It starts with an ankle injury for Beth (Karin Crighton) and then all tumbles downhill from there. The comedy builds as injury after injury occurs and tempers fly over who is to blame. These four actors are literally falling over each other, some accidentally some with purpose to execute the exasperating situation of what it is like to be stuck vacationing with your best friend for three straight weeks. Panzarotto and D’Ambrosio really display their macho masculine ability to fight one another over the most trivial things while Hurlburt and Crighton leave their bickering to a more verbal approach. A perfect way to end the show; physical violence among friends in a three-stooges sort of way.

Ultimately it’s a great night out for a little bit of love and the dissection thereof, so don’t miss your chance to enjoy a quick trip vacation, Vagabond Players will even take care of the room at California Suite.

Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes with one intermission.

California Suite plays through March 25, 2012 at Vagabond Players – 806 South Broadway in Fells Point, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 563-9135, or purchase them online.

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