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The second of three characters Sarah Jessica Parker plays in Neil Simon’s comedy triptych, Plaza Suite, is Muriel, a suburban New Jersey housewife so dazzled by the glittering celebrity whirl of her old high school flame, now a big-shot Hollywood producer, that she can barely focus on his attempts to seduce her. Starstruck Muriel is also the ideal audience for this plush revival of a minor 1968 play that hasn’t aged well. Its express purpose is as a vehicle for Parker and husband Matthew Broderick to demonstrate their stage chops and chemistry playing three different sets of characters.
Alas, the stars’ efforts, while certainly appealing, don’t make the material any less obsolete, a throwback to the bougie boulevard comedies that were once a Broadway staple. The observations on marriage and relationships occasionally generate a chuckle, but more often seem stale and the sexual politics retrograde, something that John Benjamin Hickey’s serviceable direction can’t disguise. The laughs mostly spring from watching a real-life showbiz couple kick back and have fun bouncing off each other. Judging by the hearty response at a recent press night, for many that might be reward enough.
Three one-act plays all set in the late ‘60s in Suite 719 of the famed New York City hotel, Plaza Suite no doubt owes some of the success of its original 1,097-performance Broadway run to the pedigree team of director Mike Nichols and co-stars George C. Scott and Maureen Stapleton. Arthur Hiller’s 1971 screen version, with Walter Matthau doing triple duty opposite three different women — Stapleton, Barbara Harris and Lee Grant — is mostly forgotten, deemed a failure by Simon himself.
With its attempts at finding the poignancy in a marriage that’s lost its spark butting up against broader sitcom-style gags and one-liners, the play ranks neither with the early zinger factories that made Simon a commercial heavyweight — specifically Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple — or the later, more autobiographical works that sifted through his own early life for insights into the human condition, from Brighton Beach Memoirs to Lost in Yonkers. It’s a cute but shallow showcase for two seasoned actors to show their versatility.
The seed for the production was planted in 2017, when Broderick and Parker participated in a staged reading at New York’s Symphony Space, directed by their friend and fellow actor Hickey. While both stars have worked consistently in the 25 years since they were married, they haven’t shared a stage since How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, back in 1996 when they were still dating. So celebrity voyeurism is a big part of the attraction here, particularly following Parker’s reprisal of her signature Carrie Bradshaw role in the Sex and the City sequel, And Just Like That... (The Plaza Suite revival was originally scheduled to begin performances in March 2020, but was delayed two years by the COVID shutdown.)
The action is basically three extended doodles. In the first — also the longest and most arduous — of them, Visitor from Mamaroneck, Karen and Sam Nash check into the suite where they spent their wedding night 23 years earlier. Optimistic Karen is hoping to rekindle the tired marriage with some anniversary romance, but irritable workaholic Sam has his head buried in figures. When his secretary, Miss McCormack (Molly Ranson), drops by with documents for him to sign, Karen insinuates that the amount of late nights he’s been working points to them having an affair. But what starts almost as a teasing joke takes on more serious tones as uncomfortable truths emerge.
Parker, at least in the closing moments of the piece, finds emotional transparency and pathos in the sadness of a marriage in trouble and that of a loyal wife faced with infidelity. But she works hard for it, particularly since Broderick’s monotone delivery keeps Sam at a distance. It’s as if the actor has chosen inertia, keeping his energy in the tank for the accelerating comedy of the next two acts.
In the second playlet, Visitor from Hollywood, Broderick swaps the starchy gray business suit for mod plaid pants, a rust hipster jacket and turtleneck sweater, as well as mutton-chop sideburns, to play Jesse Kiplinger, the Midas Touch producer who has never made a movie that lost money. While he’s in town to sign Lee Marvin for his next picture, he invites his high school sweetheart Muriel — last seen in Tenafly, NJ, 17 years ago — to drop by.
Parker also gets a radical makeover from costumer Jane Greenwood and wig master Tom Watson, swapping the sensible burgundy suit and brunette ‘do of the first act for flat-ironed blond tresses with a black headband, matching tights, shoes and gloves and a groovy Pucci-print dress. The look might be a tad chic and sophisticated for unworldly ditz Muriel, but the star looks so sensational, who’s quibbling?
Muriel insists repeatedly that she can’t stay but keeps lingering over another vodka stinger refill, as Jesse expresses his longing for a sweet uncomplicated woman while endeavoring to steer her into the bedroom. This gives both actors license to dip into their physical comedy toolbox with more engaging results, even if the sketch is wafer-thin. The kind of nervous Charleston thing that Parker does with her bendy legs is particularly funny.
Act III, Visitor from Forest Hills, pulls out all the stops and barrels into farce as Parker’s Norma Hubley — outfitted in amusingly tacky mother-of-the-bride pastels with outsize hat — frets over the refusal of her daughter Mimsey (Ranson again) to come out of the bathroom and head downstairs to be wed. While anxiously fielding calls from the groom’s father, Norma summons her husband Roy (Broderick) to deal with recalcitrant Mimsey, who remains silent behind the closed door. But neither Roy’s stern words nor his itemized litany of how much the shindig is costing him manage to budge her.
This is where Broderick’s shtick pays off best, as Roy resorts to increasingly desperate measures, including shimmying along the window ledge above Fifth Avenue in an attempt to access the bathroom. The humor is far from fresh, and Simon’s writing often so mechanical that you can see the jokes coming. But both actors dive into the setup with such zeal that the characters’ helplessness, the threat of social mortification and their frustrated inability to communicate with their daughter become quite endearing.
Broderick and Parker modulate their physical and vocal performances throughout, working up to a hint of crassness that never becomes cartoonish in the final act. If their choice of material is questionable, their commitment to it is not. Parker ultimately walks away with the show; she doesn’t lose the mannerisms that have become essential parts of her screen persona, but she molds them into three distinct characters, finding obvious enjoyment in reconnecting with her stage roots.
But it makes sense that the first reveal of John Lee Beatty’s finely detailed set gets almost as big a round of applause as the star entrances. That visual, along with Marc Shaiman’s jaunty cocktail music, guides us back in time to a world of period luxury that could pass for Broadway half a century ago.
Venue: Hudson Theatre, New York
Cast: Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica Parker, Danny Bolero, Molly Ranson, Cesar J. Romero
Director: John Benjamin Hickey
Playwright: Neil Simon
Set designer: John Lee Beatty
Costume designer: Jane Greenwood
Lighting designer: Brian MacDevitt
Sound designer: Scott Lehrer
Music: Marc Shaiman
Producer: Bea Carrozzoni for ATG Productions
Presented by Ambassador Theatre Group Productions, Gavin Kalin Productions, Hal Luftig, James L. Nederlander, Douglas L. Meyer, Elizabeth Armstrong, Hunter Arnold, Caitlin Clements, Eilene Davidson Productions, Jeffrey Finn, Terry Schnuck, Smith and Brant Theatricals, Sherry and Kirk Wright, Mike Isaacson
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