Corrections or additions?
This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the
December 6, 2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
New York Reviews: The Dinner Party
At the final curtain call of Neil Simon’s "The
Dinner Party" last month, one of the actors, Len Cariou, stepped
forward to thank the audience for leaving their homes and their
to attend the play. Then he added that it was the bottom of the fifth
and the Mets were leading 1 to 0. The audience cheered and applauded.
The mood change from the conclusion of Simon’s ersatz comedy to news
of "America’s favorite pastime" was palpable.
Apparently tired of writing about his own breed of urban Americans,
Simon has arbitrarily chosen the French as subjects for his latest
and most bitter (forget sweet) comedy. Why he has picked on the French
is never explained. There is certainly nothing remotely French in
manner or attitude in the play’s six characters — three divorced
couples, who make their entrances respectively one at a time at a
posh Parisian restaurant to which they have been invited. Here, they
begin to say things and do things that do not remotely resemble normal
speech, French or otherwise, or suggest human behavior you might have
either imagined or seen before.
With due respect to Simon’s estimable canon of comedies that graced
Broadway most frequently and famously during the pre-TV sitcom era,
his latest venture is so lamentable in substance, execution, and
that the effort to remain seated for its entire 100 intermissionless
minutes was a trial.
Within designer John Lee Beatty’s very pretty evocation of a private
dining salon, its grand wall-covering mural in the style of Fragonard,
we have to contend with a half-dozen dull and dour characters, each
of whom takes great pains to make it clear that they would rather
be somewhere else. Sentiments I shared exactly. The actors likewise
seem to have been cast to further strain whatever credibility there
might be lurking in their implausible situation and in the
characters they are required to play.
The first to arrive is Claude Pichon (John Ritter), a rude and
antiquarian; he is followed by Albert Donay (Henry Winkler), a dopey
sad-sack proprietor of a car rental agency. That they don’t know each
other, or seem to have any social connection is further confounded
when they realize that their dinner invitations come from the divorce
lawyer they have in common. Things get more uncomfortable with the
arrival of Andre Bouville (Len Cariou), an arrogant, stiff-necked
clothing manufacturer, who also has the same lawyer. His overt disdain
for the other two men is nothing compared to the trio’s response and
reactions to the women who then begin to arrive. This comes in the
form of a barrage of one-liners that fall somewhere between outright
flat and almost funny.
First there is Claude’s ex-wife Mariette Levieux (Jan Maxwell), a
stylish and attractive writer of pulp fiction, who apparently had
a short post-divorce fling with Andre. Then comes Yvonne Fouchet
Cox), Albert’s irritatingly timid and tense ex-wife. Last to arrive
is Andre’s ex-wife Gabrielle Buonocelli (Penny Fuller), whom we
is the evening’s manipulator, and whose secret agenda is supposed
to be the raison d’etre for this unsettling little soiree.
The plot plods along as each couple get a chance to face each other
with the facts and feelings that presumably led to their breakup.
I won’t bore you with noting the various revelations and regrets,
except to say that none of it is either sociologically or
profound or convincing. The luckiest ones are those couples who take
their rather awkwardly devised cues and leave the room; they don’t
have to continue to listen as we do.
Surely Simon must have had something amusing and inventive in his
mind when he began to write. Yet the text and acting is so stilted
that one might actually think that this is a brutal translation of
some third-rate boulevard comedy. Obviously director John Rando had
no clue about what to make of it or do with it. The result is an
unfunny comedy. At the play’s end, when the dinner is finally ready
to be served, one suspects it has already turned as rancid as the
unappetizing confrontations that preceded it. One star *
— Simon Saltzman
New York. $20 to $65. 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.
If we are to welcome a contemporary play about the
let it be Yasmina Reza’s "The Unexpected Man." The author
of the Tony Award-winner "Art," has come up with a slight
but sophisticated romantic fantasy that, while not on a par with
is nevertheless a gem.
With far fewer contrivances and characters than Neil Simon’s
"The Dinner Party," Reza’s play is also about the French.
The difference is that it has a plethora of intelligent amusing lines,
an artfully devised premise, and a pair of dazzling performances.
That this trifle of a play runs its course in a mere 75 minutes means
that you will only have a relatively short time in which to be awed
by the performances of Eileen Atkins and Alan Bates, the play’s only
actors. Think of it as a dinner party at which the only course served
is a delicious and completely satisfying creme brulee.
Marthe (Atkins), an attractive smartly dressed middle-aged woman,
is sitting and starring out of the window of her compartment on the
Paris to Frankfurt train. Opposite her is Parsky (Bates), a well-known
middle-aged novelist. Although they are the only occupants, they do
not acknowledge each other or speak. The audience, however, hears
everything they are thinking through their interior thoughts, each
in turn, and each revealing just enough about themselves to make us
want to know more.
Parsky is filled with bitterness about the course of his life and
career and harshly disapproving of his daughter’s choice of a fiance.
He is even more angered and dismayed by the reviews of his latest
book "The Unexpected Man." While contemplating that his career
might well be over, he is also given to digressive opinions and
about the intriguing woman seated opposite him.
Not only has Marthe recognized Parsky, but she happens to be an ardent
fan and admirer of all his books. That she happens to have a copy
of his latest book in her purse is cause for great and amusing
While she is as unable to start a conversation with Parsky, as she
is unable to take the book out of her purse, she is up to ruefully
detailing the long-time intimate relationship she has had with a
man, recently deceased. Marthe would love nothing more than to speak
to this man she has so long admired. Parsky also begins to wonder
whether or not to start a conversation with the woman whose presence
is one he cannot ignore for the entire trip.
Do they eventually speak to each other? Are they destined for a
Romance? The simplicity of the situation is enhanced by the smart
staging by director Matthew Warchus, who allows the actors to move
about rather provocatively in designer Mark Thompson’s cleverly
train and track setting. The joy of the play is the insinuating text
and irresistible acting of Atkins and Bates. Minor quibble: Wouldn’t
a short curtain-raiser help to justify the steep price of admission
for such a brief evening? Three stars ***
— Simon Saltzman
76 Street, New York. $60 & $65. 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.
The key: **** Don’t miss; *** You won’t feel cheated; ** Maybe you
should have stayed home; * Don’t blame us.
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