Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
The Dinner Party
The play begins with three upper-class Frenchmen entering a deserted dining room in Paris. They know the lawyer whose name was on the invitation, but they have never met each other and they don't really want to get chummy. After some bantering (some of which is witty), they discover that the lawyer handled all three of their divorces. But where is he, and why are they there? Is this Godot territory? The table is set for six, so they expect three more guests to come. When they do arrive, they are not the guests they were hoping to see.
You might wonder why Neil Simon would write a play set in Paris with all six characters being French. I wonder too. There's nothing very French about the dialogue or the behavior of the characters. About the only thing French is their names. My guess is that Simon was influenced by Yasmina Reza's Art, in which three upper-class Frenchmen sit around in a single set and talk to each other for an hour and a half, no intermission. It was a hit on Broadway and won the Tony two years before Simon's play opened on Broadway in 2000. Simon might have been hoping for an equivalent success, but he didn't get it.
The Dinner Party is also a one-act, running about two hours. It's basically a play about divorce, and there's not a lot of comedy to be found in divorce. What leads a couple to get a divorce? Do they regret it afterwards? Do they ever really stop loving the person they loved when they got married? Are irreconcilable differences ever reconcilable?
Simon must have known whereof he was writing. He was married five times. Widowed once, divorced three times, and his last wife outlived him. He was married to his third wife for about a year. They divorced. They remarried two years later, and then divorced again eight years later. It seems that late in his career (this is his thirty-first play), he wanted to explore what he had learned about marriage, divorce and love. The more you think about this play, the more you realize that life had made him pretty wise. If only it had made him a better writer.
Much of the dialogue in the second half of the play sounds as if it came from a playwriting seminar assignment: Take three divorced couples, put them into a locked room, make them reveal what they loved and hated about their former spouses, and then see if any of them get back together. I felt like I was eavesdropping on a session with a marriage counselor, and it would have been nice if the counselor had said that the time was up about fifteen minutes before it was. It also would have been nice if the dialogue had a bit of sparkle to it instead of straightforward confessionality.
Despite these shortcomings, this Adobe Theater production is worth seeing. The acting all around is fine. Tim Crofton starts out blustery but modulates his performance as it goes on. Ludwig Puchmayer proves that he can handle a leading role well, and his German accent is not a problem at all. It could be that his character is from Alsace. Harry Zimmerman is very good at playing the most disagreeable character in the play, and he doesn't try to soften him up, which is commendable.
Clair Gardner is perfect as an elegant Parisienne. Not only does she look the part (helped by Carolyn Hogan's stunning costuming), but she acts the role to a T. This seems to be her first major performance in Albuquerque, and I hope she will do much more theater here. Sarah Kesselring is very good as the nervous and scattered two-time divorcee. Carolyn Hogan's character is given some of the most embarrassing lines in the play but she handles them like a pro.
The set and props by Linda Wilson are superb. Lewis Hauser assembled the cast and has done a very good job directing the performances, but the placement of the actors is not ideal. One of the problems with the layout of the Adobe theater is that it's difficult to block the action so that all of the audience can see all of the actors at the same time. If you're sitting in the seats on the sides, you fairly often are looking at an actor's back. In a dialogue-driven play like this one, it can diminish the effectiveness of the repartee for minutes at a time. Enough said.
I can't recommend this play unconditionally, which is the fault of the script rather than the production, but I nevertheless think it's worth seeing as an experiment of sorts by one of the most successful playwrights of the American theater. There was more to him than just a bunch of gags.
The Dinner Party runs through February 5, 2023, at The Adobe Theater, 9813 4th St. NW, Albuquerque NM. Friday and Saturday at 7:30, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00. For tickets and information, please visit www.adobetheater.org. by Neil Simon, directed by Lewis Hauser,