Review: ‘California Suite’ at Providence Players of Fairfax

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Providence Players of Fairfax presents Neil Simon’s California Suite, a quartet of play-lets set in Suite 203-04 of California’s famed Beverly Hills Hotel. Director Beth Gilles-Whitehead updates the material–originally set in 1976–for a modern audience. Simon uses wit and physical slapstick to study common long-term relationship problems in this comedy, including infidelity, disenchantment, and divorce.

L-R: Mario Font, Laura Champe Mitchell, Lou Lehrman, and Allison Turkel are the visitors from Chicago in the Providence Players production of Neil Simon's California Suite. Photo by Chip Gertzog, Providence Players.
L-R: Mario Font, Laura Champe Mitchell, Lou Lehrman, and Allison Turkel are the visitors from Chicago in the Providence Players production of Neil Simon’s California Suite. Photo by Chip Gertzog, Providence Players.

The grand-scale set is expertly constructed and detailed, showing the impressive interior of a typical high-end hotel suite. It obviously took a lot of work to build, paint, and decorate, so I was not surprised to see a long list of crew alongside set designer Patrick David. Technical crew Jimmy Gertzog, Sarah Mournigham, Chuck O’Toole, and Bob Smith work with lighting designers Roxanne Waite and Jason Hamrick to build the atmosphere, enhanced with sound design by Dan Schrader. Costume designer Amanda Ranowsky dresses the characters to suit their personalities and situations, ranging all the way from formal ball gowns to tennis shorts.

Hannah and William Warren (Ia Ioannidou and Chris Persil) are a long-divorced couple fighting over their daughter’s living arrangements. Haughty, snide, and intimidating, Hannah is a force to be reckoned with. Ia gives a strong performance here, her influence so palpable that my guest leaned towards me before she even spoke her first line and said, “Yeesh. I hate her already.” What follows is a revealing look inside a difficult woman in a difficult situation.

Dave Wright gives arguably the audience’s favorite performance as Marvin Michaels, a hung-over man who is desperately trying to wake a prostitute (Wynter Chatman) who has passed out in his bed…before his wife, who arrived at the hotel a day early, discovers the situation. Liz Mykietyn gets a lot of laughs as Millie Michaels, and the two’s chemistry as a long-married couple is easily the best pairing onstage.

Liz Mykietyn as Millie Michaels and Dave Wright as Marvin Michaels in the Providence Players production of Neil Simon's California Suite. Photo by Chip Gertzog, Providence Players.
Liz Mykietyn as Millie Michaels and Dave Wright as Marvin Michaels in the Providence Players production of Neil Simon’s California Suite. Photo by Chip Gertzog, Providence Players.

Next, we have Sidney and Diana Nichols (Allen McRae and Janet Kohler Dueweke), a glamorous couple who are getting ready for the Oscars, where Diana is nominated for the Best Actress award. Frazzled and insecure, Diana spends a lot of time complaining about her dress, her hair, her makeup…just about everything, while Sidney calms her with compliments and playful banter. The two are comfortable and engaging together, but seem to lack a specific intimacy. It’s almost as if they’re more friends than a couple–a touchy subject that rears its ugly head later in the evening.

Finally, we have two couples vacationing together, their entrance an explosive one as Mort Hollander (Lou Lehrman) helps his injured wife Beth (Allison Turkel) into their suite. Beth has twisted her ankle while playing tennis with their long-time friends Stu and Gert Franklyn (Mario Font and Laura Champe Mitchell), and Mort’s anger towards the Franklyns, whom he blames, is as potent as Beth’s physical pain. Long-suffered tensions between both couples rise to the surface as the characters scramble to aid Beth…and while doing so, a domino-effect of injuries play out onstage, ending everyone in an ugly situation both physically and emotionally. Theirs is the most physical interaction onstage, and a welcome ending to the show for fans of exaggeration and slapstick.

Providence Players’ California Suite is a comedy at face value, and is enjoyable as such, but the topics it explores are amongst the most difficult (and relatable) relationship issues. It allows you to examine these hardships through a lighthearted medium– a literal spoonful of sugar and medicine scenario. Though some performances could benefit from some fine-tuning, the overall effect is good, and the team works well together. Long-married couples will especially enjoy this one. Anniversary coming up? Here’s a good way to spend an evening!

Running Time: Approximately two hours, including one 15-minute intermission.

California Suite, presented by the Providence Players of Fairfax, plays through June 16, 2018, at The James Lee Community Center Theater– 2855 Annandale Road, Falls Church, VA. To purchase tickets, go online.