When attending a student production, I'm excited for the young performers, and hope the evening ends with the audience standing and cheering. Such were my hopes on the opening night of Neil Simon's The Dinner Party for the Scott Community College actors , who gave it their best shot with some standout performances. But to have a great production, it helps to have great writing and a great story to tell.
Neil Simon, at age 73, decided to somewhat veer away from his most successful genre with The Dinner Party, and although the playwright who gave us The Odd Couple and The Sunshine Boys serves up some laughs as appetizers, the main entrée is bitterness. Written in 2000 soon after marrying a fifth time, I guess Simon had some thoughts on marriage he needed to air, but what results is a curious mash-up of drama and comedy.
The setting is a private dining room in a posh Paris restaurant, and while the sparse Dinner Party program mentioned the Culinary Arts program, the show's set designers weren't credited. They should have been. As the locale was created simply yet effectively with a black backdrop, an elegant table setting for six, two French-styled arm chairs, and a sideboard with champagne bottles and flutes, the tone was set for a refined evening.
Events begin with three strangers - Claude, Albert, and Andre - entering the room one at a time. They have no idea why they've been invited and appear irritated at the whole idea, and at each other. (Insulting and demeaning remarks fly from the start, and although Simon evidently meant for these remarks to be funny, not all hit the mark.) After much speculation as to why this dinner party is taking place, three more guests - Mariette, Yvonne, and Gabrielle - arrive, and more is revealed about why they've been assembled.
Director Kevin Babbitt's show does feature some notable performers. One is Max Robnett as Claude, who opens the play in a clever, engaging way by quietly appearing on stage, looking about, sitting, rearranging the pillows, picking lint off his jacket, and looking slightly pensive. He piques our curiosity about what will follow, and all throughout, Robnett's expressive acting and natural line deliveries help carry the play.
Offering a good effort for his first SCC production, Joseph Nguyen is rental-car dealer Albert, who lacks the others' sophistication. Nguyen plays the character as uncool yet likable, and earns the audience's sympathy as he endures one verbal barb after another. Even when he practically drools over one of the female characters, we still sympathize. As Andre, Will Marbury has an ease on stage that made his every sentence believable. His character is the most unlikable of the guests, and Marbury pulls this off with just the right blend of composure and swagger, his strong stage presence making him perfectly cast for his role.
A first-time-ever stage performer, Karina Monrreal faced a formidable challenge in her role as Mariette, and tried valiantly to deliver. The staccato-like readings of her lines, which may have worked better in a different play, sounded unnatural here and took away from her character's authenticity, but I applaud Monrreal's effort immensely and hope she hones her acting for future performances.
When doing a Simon play, it's difficult to make lines not seem like recitation, and although Shannon O'Brien, as Gabrielle, knew her lines, she occasionally slipped in her endeavor to make them sound natural. Her pivotal role as a forceful woman with grace and charm may have also worked better had she played Gabrielle as more assertive and not so docile. (I wondered if Babbitt thought of switching the casting of Monrreal and O'Brien.) Meanwhile, Hannah Murray, who plays Yvonne, does well in her scenes with Nguyen, and although her character lacks a certain neurotic quality, she manages to garner sympathy and exude appropriately neurotic body language.
After an evening of unforgiving revelations, the play does end on a gentler note, with the audience left to ask "Is marriage itself an absurd situation?" (Maybe also "Is Simon's play mirroring his unhappy marital experiences?") But writing should be engaging and even the best actors need good lines, and Simon may have also forgotten a major rule of theatre in his work here: The audience must care about the characters. You can love them or hate them, but you must feel something, and we rarely do here.
Yet student productions are meant to be learning experiences for their actors and crews, and I give credit to Babbitt and SCC's ensemble cast for tackling such a play as The Dinner Party. We need to keep in mind that these actors are learning their lines and rehearsing while continuing their regular classroom studies. I support their effort, and hope you will, too.
[Editor's note: Author Victoria Navarro will be contributing reviews alongside the Reader's other new local-theatre correspondents Jeff Ashcraft, Dee Canfield, Heather Herkelman, and Brent Tubbs.]
The Dinner Party runs at Scott Community College's Student Life Center (500 Belmont Road, Room 2400 through Door Five, Bettendorf) through November 14, and more information is available by calling (563)441-4339 or e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.