Those who aspire to great heights of theatrical art tend to look down on comedy. They don’t take it seriously, which is understandable, since it is, by definition, not serious. Famed comic actors yearn to dig their teeth into tragic roles. Contemporary theaters mount plays plumbing the depths of human despair or depravity, or, if they do comedy, it is edgy black comedy, which presents situations so ghastly that they veer into farce, and invite the audience to chuckle uneasily at the characters’ misery. The mission of contemporary theater is apparently to challenge the audience, rather than to amuse. So comedies, which take seriously their mandate to entertain, are dismissed as frivolous fluff, unworthy of “the Theatre.”
What these artistes overlook is that comedy can delve into subjects as serious and poignant as drama, but is much harder to do well. Just about any actor with guts can bare his or her soul, but to do it while making an audience laugh requires nerve, range, timing and skill.
Neil Simon, the Tony and Pulitzer-winning playwright who passed away last year at the age of 91, is the master of such comedy. Serious theatre folk on play selection committees tend to roll their eyes and say, “not another Neil Simon show — oh, well, if we must — the oldies will roll in and laugh and I guess we can make some money so we can do ‘night, Mother next season.” But comedies like Simon’s deserve more serious respect.
An excellent case in point is Sandy Spring Theatre Group and Arts on the Green’s production of Plaza Suite at the Arts Barn. Plaza Suite, which opened on Broadway in 1968, is one of Simon’s best-known shows. In essence, it is three one-act plays, all taking place in Suite 719 of the Plaza Hotel in New York. Director Bruce Hirsch guides the production with a deft hand, drawing nuance out of the characters’ relationships, while keeping the comedy flowing. He avoids the pitfall some directors have fallen into of casting the same actors as all three principal couples; he only doubles the minor roles, and chooses actors most suitable for the major ones.
The most poignant of the three stories is the first, in which a couple who are (or aren’t) celebrating their 23rd (or 24th) wedding anniversary in the suite in which they spent (or didn’t spend) their wedding night grapple with the revelation that the husband is having an affair with his secretary. The pace of this act could be faster, and the comedy slightly more pointed, perhaps, without losing the pathos. Dash Samari and Jack Mayo make the most of small supporting roles, with Mayo’s annoying humming being a nice touch. Rachel Harding is suitably brittle and condescending as the secretary. Mark Steimer deftly manages to evoke some sympathy for the philandering husband, Sam Nash, as he expresses desperate vanity, guilt, anger, and confusion. And Amy Black, as Karen Nash, is by turns bitterly sarcastic, desperately loving, strong and self-possessed, and ultimately devastated at the disintegration of her marriage. It is a fine performance that shows the emotional complexity that comedy can express.
The second story is equally nuanced, but more unusual – and funnier. A big Hollywood producer invites his old high school sweetheart up to his suite “just to say hello.” It is fairly clear he is a lothario bent on seducing her, and the big question is, will she or won’t she? But as smooth operator Jesse Kiplinger, Kirk Patton Jr. manages to bring genuine pathos to a role usually portrayed as smarmy. He has had his fill of the grasping, artificial women of Hollywood, and is hoping that his old flame will turn out to be “the one decent woman left in the world” — a rather ironic wish, given his intention to lure her into adultery. She, meanwhile, turns out to be unhappily married, heavily drinking, and interested only in the very Tinseltown glamor that he is hoping she will help him leave behind. Kryss Lacovaro is terrific as the seemingly innocent Muriel, getting increasingly drunk and letting her true feelings slip with impeccable comic timing.
The third story is the most purely comic of the three. Norma and Roy Hubley are hosting their daughter’s wedding — if they can get her to come out of the bathroom, where she has locked herself in a fit of cold feet. Rachel Harding reappears here as the beautiful bride, and Dash Samari as the amusingly matter-of-fact groom. Jim Kitterman is good as the father of the bride, getting increasingly frustrated, bruised and disheveled as he attempts to extract his daughter. He could have brought even more apoplectic energy to the role to match the exquisite kvetching of Susan Paisner as his wife. Paisner turns in a tour-de-force comic performance, delivering many of her lines with a deadpan calm that makes the chaos even funnier. But even here in the midst of the slapstick humor, there is a poignant emotional core when the parents realize the source of their daughter’s distress. Nevertheless, because this is comedy, an evening that began painting a dark picture of marriage ends with a hopeful wedding.
Bill Brown’s set, constructed by Steve Leshin, makes excellent use of the Arts Barn’s limited stage space, with the bedroom of the suite upstage behind an invisible “wall,” leaving all of the downstage area available for the living room. It would be nice to have something beyond the windows to evoke the view, and if the bathroom door had opened the other way, the audience wouldn’t see the dark backstage area. But overall, it is a good set, especially since it must be packed away in a small space between performances. Joe Conner’s lighting design, operated by Jack Mayo when not onstage, gets the job done, although it seems to take a strangely long time for the bellhop to turn the lights on at the beginning, which slows the pace of the first scene even more.
The costumes, by the talented Stephenie Yee, are period-appropriate and perfect for the characters, from the spurned wife’s dowdy ensemble at the beginning to the gorgeous wedding dress at the end.
True, these plays are about wealthy white people and their funny first-world problems. We definitely need more diverse stories in theatre. But they do not inevitably have to be devastating, dreary or depressing. We are no longer in a position in our society where complacent audiences need to be forced to contemplate the evils of the world every time they enter a theater. The ills are all too present to us every day. Comedy gives credit to the audience both in their intelligent awareness and their legitimate need to be entertained. The kind of plays Simon wrote can create a bond between the people in the audience and the people on stage, as they explore together the human emotion and pain that lie at the core of comedy.
Running Time: Two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.
Plaza Suite, presented by Sandy Spring Theatre Group, plays through February 24, 2019, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, Sunday Matinees at 2 pm, at The Arts Barn, 311 Kent Square Road, Gaithersburg, MD. Purchase tickets at the door, at 301-258-6394, or online.