For my money, California Suite is the ideal Neil Simon play, as it's actually composed of four independent one-act plays, giving you far less chance to grow exhausted by his characters' persistent wisecracking.
Yet the happy surprise - the shock - of the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre's production of the show is that the performers and director Jalayne Riewerts soften and humanize Simon's playlets so that you don't grow exhausted by any of them. More often than not, the actors hit their marks and score their laughs, yet they do so truthfully; the characters here aren't quite the relentlessly Simon-ized joke machines that tend to drive his detractors batty. This California Suite is sure to tickle fans of the author, but it might impress the rest of us even more.
In her director's notes, Riewerts acknowledges the playwright's polarizing effect by writing, "For some people, the mention of a Neil Simon play makes their stomachs turn." Personally, it's not that my stomach turns so much as my teeth ache. Even when his jokes are funny - and, in California Suite, a bunch of them are - Simon's works are maddening because his characters don't have individual voices; everyone in them comes equipped with an arsenal of witty comebacks and clever phraseology regardless of whether the characters, as established, would actually be that witty or clever. In most Simon plays, it doesn't matter a whit who says what, because everyone sounds the same.
Brava to Riewerts, then, for ensuring that none of California Suite's one-acts feels quite like the others. Simon's contributions can't be completely ignored; the verbal-tennis-match sequences, here, alternate with ones heavy on slapstick physical comedy, lending the presentation some variety. But the director has also shrewdly cast the show with a welcome variety of acting styles.
In the "Visitors from Philadelphia" piece, middle-aged Marvin Michaels (Archie Williams) attempts to keep his wife (Stacy Herrick) from noticing the passed-out hooker (Karen Pittenger) in the bedroom, and it may be the production's most purely enjoyable segment. Throwing himself from one room to the next in fits of barely concealed apoplexy, Williams is wonderfully dynamic, and the combination of his little-boy-lost vocals and his sizable physique yields unexpected comic rewards; he's like Lenny in Of Mice & Men reincarnated as Dudley Moore in "10."
And once Marvin's ruse is (literally) uncovered, Herrick's already-fine performance grows into a marvelous one, her incredulous contempt earning hugely satisfying laughs. The two play off each other terrifically well - Pittenger, for her part, remains admirably unconscious - and thankfully, Riewerts doesn't force her actors into the exaggerated Jewish stereotypes the piece calls for. (Simon includes far too many cracks about the Michaels' thriftiness.) The decision may make the bar-mitzvah references seem odd, but it improves on the original piece significantly.
Similar screwball antics occur in the climactic "Visitors from Chicago," which features real-life married couples Jeff and Liz Blackwell and Mike and Jackie Skiles as best friends now ready to kill one another at the tail end of a three-week vacation. Neither the gags nor the slapstick is as inspired here as in "Philadelphia" - the violence, some of it involving broken ankles and broken glass, actually teeters on the edge of unpleasant - but the actors seem to be having a ball hurling fists and obscenities at one another, and the pacing never lags; it's brief, kinda brutal, and much funnier than it should be.
Classier laughs (well, as classy as Simon gets) come courtesy of "Visitors from London," in which that splendid comedienne Diane Greenwood portrays an Oscar-nominated actress readying for the Academy Awards ceremony, and Stan Weimer plays her resigned, sexually ambiguous husband. Always an electric stage presence, Greenwood spits out Simon's bon mots with devastating precision - she knows exactly where her British cadences should rise and fall for maximum impact - and Weimer's warm, relaxed underplaying is a perfect match for his co-star's finely calibrated overplaying. The second half turns a bit maudlin, but Riewerts and her actors keep the sentimentality in check; the piece ends on a lovely, touching note of acceptance.
Of the four one-acts, only the opening "Visitors from New York" is a disappointment, not because Lorrie Halsall and Larry Lord - as a divorced couple fighting over custody of their daughter - aren't playing it honestly, but because it's material that no one conceivably could play honestly. (In the California Suite movie, even Jane Fonda and Alan Alda didn't pull it off.) The biting comebacks and general bitchiness of Halsall's character makes her an incredible pill, and Lord's role is that of an easygoing sap, so there's no fun to be had in their repartee; if it weren't for a few good jokes (one concerning the Mecca of New York City is especially sharp), it would make for a tough slog. But three out of four in Richmond Hill's latest ain't bad at all, and for someone with a built-in aversion to California Suite's playwright, it's damn near miraculous.
For tickets, call (309) 944-2244.