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Theatre in Review: Plaza Suite (Hudson Theatre)

Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick. Photo: Joan Marcus

In Plaza Suite, Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker make a lively pair of playmates and their enjoyment is contagious. They're presiding over the unlikeliest of good times, showcasing the humor of Neil Simon, Broadway's emperor emeritus and now a faded name consigned to the shelf reserved for yesteryear's successes. (The musicals Sweet Charity and Promises, Promises get trotted out from time to time, but successful revivals of Simon's plays are few and far between.) But, romping through this trio of one-acts set in the famous New York hotel, the stars breathe life into the long-dormant boulevard comedy genre.

Indeed, Parker has become so identified with Carrie Bradshaw, of the Sex and the City franchise, that it's fun to see her cut loose, creating three very different women. Her most startling transformation is as Karen, a garrulous, lonely suburbanite trying to coax her workaholic husband, Sam, into celebrating their anniversary. She is so starved for conversation that she keeps a bellhop stranded in the doorway, regaling him with tales of the murders and suicides committed at the now-razed hotel across the street. (As replacements go, she notes, the GM Building is especially disappointing.) The young man's escape --there are other guests waiting -- doesn't slow her down; if necessary, she will regale the walls.

There is a method to Karen's loquacity: Her plans for a romantic night in disarray, her marriage slipping through her fingers, she keeps on talking, gambling that words alone can keep Sam from walking out. It's a desperate, rear-guard action, to be sure, yet when Sam admits the bitter truth, that he is sleeping with his secretary, something unexpected happens: Assuming an icy composure, Karen deadpans, "I suspected it. You were working three nights a week and we weren't getting any richer." It's a classic Simon moment, heartbreak greeted -- and momentarily diffused -- with a wisecrack, and Parker knows just what to do with it.

Karen's suddenly tough stance instantly puts Sam on the defensive, urging her not to blame the young lady (Molly Ranson, trim, unpretentiously chic, and good with figures). Collapsing on the couch in astonishment at his misplaced sympathy, Karen growls, "I'll send her a nice gift." Sam is shocked but, in her moment of defeat, she discovers defenses she didn't know she had. This marriage may not be saved, but Karen is learning the consolations of a sharp comeback. She might even be caught reading Betty Friedan on the train ride home.

Parker returns as Muriel, of Tenafly, New Jersey, who is so happily married -- no, really -- that she sneaks off for illicit cocktails with Jesse, her high school beau, now a much-divorced Hollywood producer looking for a little afternoon delight. Muriel talks a demure game but, knocking back the vodka stingers, her morals begin to visibly wobble. (The time of that must-attend salon appointment keeps receding into the future, giving her time for just one more drink.) Eager for a touch of glossy romance but determined not to admit it, Muriel advances and retreats at a dizzying pace; when Jesse, frustrated by her mood swings, gets ready to bid her adieu, looks positively crestfallen. Soon she has him in an octopus grasp, begging to be let go from an embrace she initiated. It's a delectable moment of farce.

Outfitted in an aggressively flowery ensemble and a hat swiped from one of the Florodora Girls, Parker tops herself as Norma, the frantic mother of a bride who, minutes before the ceremony, has locked herself in the bathroom, refusing to speak. Faced with massive social embarrassment, a stinging financial loss, and torn stockings, Norma falls on the bed in a state of collapse, instantly bouncing off the mattress, ready to engage in the next round of negotiations. Driven to distraction, she is reduced to pleading, "If you want, I'll have it annulled next week, but please come out and get married!" And when she discovers that she and her husband Roy are the source of the young lady's premarital jitters, her wounded dignity is something to see. It's been far too long since we've had the pleasure of Parker's presence in a theatre and her comic instincts are as sharply honed as ever.

The male characters are less colorfully conceived, but Broderick modifies his trademark flat-affect style for each, timing his laugh lines with Rolex precision. For example, there's Sam, who, having crossed the Rubicon into middle age, continues to fight the inevitable, devoting himself to 900-calorie diets and younger women with equal ardor. It's a losing battle; staring into a mirror in horror, he gasps, "My God, who the hell is that?" And, cornered by Karen into explaining why he is willing to throw over a life of accomplishment and wealth, he notes, sadly. "I just want to do it all over again."

As Jesse, the producer on the make, Broderick is the most inept and befuddled of seducers. Sporting custom-made leather shoes with too-smooth soles, he slip-slides around the suite -- at one point, in a bid to gain traction, clutching the bed for dear life -- and wooing Muriel, the cheapest of dates, with a list of boldface names ranging from Elke Sommer to Troy Donahue. "Say it," she says, accusingly. "Say, 'I will not have a big laugh with Otto Preminger over this'." "I don't even talk to Otto Preminger," Jesse replies, baffled.

Broderick dominates in the third sketch as Roy, the bride's father, furiously calculating how many dollars' worth of wine and cocktail frankfurters are being consumed while the wedding march is delayed. His ire mounts exponentially as he tears his tailcoat, dislocates his shoulder against the bathroom door, and ends up on the building's ledge during a thunderstorm. Admitting that he spent the previous night in tears over the loss of his daughter, he mutters, darkly, "Wait'll you hear what goes on tonight!" This is the loosest, funniest work Broderick has done in years, and one can safely assume his inspiration has been sparked by his leading lady.

Credit also director John Benjamin Hickey, who skillfully handles many bits of business: Karen childishly launching a paper airplane to get Sam's attention, Jesse and Muriel snazzily dancing the Twist en route to bed, and the carefully controlled mayhem of the third scene: Roy's entrance after that misadventure on the ledge, looking drenched and ready to commit murder, is one for your memory book.

John Lee Beatty provides deluxe accommodations for his stars with a cream-and-blue interior featuring plush appointments. (One note: If you sit too far on house right, you might miss some of the byplay at the bathroom door in the final scene.) Brian MacDevitt delivers a series of meticulously rendered time-of-day looks, many of them making good use of the set's many practical units. Jane Greenwood's unfailingly witty costumes include Muriel's minidress, featuring a Pucci pattern apparently run through a blender, and Jesse's eye-searing ensemble of plaid pants, blue turtleneck sweater, and orange blazer. (Tom Watson's wig and hair designs complete the looks, especially Muriel's blonde tresses, which look like they've been run through the pants presser.) Sound designer Scott Lehrer's effects include buzzers, phones, and thunderclaps as well as reinforcement for Marc Shaiman's jazzy incidental scoring.

Simon's plays have moved decisively into the category of period pieces, but the humor here, based in frustration, rage, and embarrassment, remains timeless. (This is not a general rule regarding his works; don't expect a revival of The Star-Spangled Girl anytime soon.) Plaza Suite, originally produced in 1968 and not seen in New York since then, is particularly interesting as it reveals the sex comedy at a crossroads, reshaped by changing social mores. (The genre went the way of the dodo sometime in the late '70s, when the curtain fell on the last performance of Bernard Slade's Same Time, Next Year.) Given the Tiffany treatment it gets here, the results are golden; with Broderick and Parker using it as their personal playground, it makes for an evening of vintage amusement. --David Barbour

(4 April 2022)

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