“Welcome to the Hotel California,” crooned the Eagles as the lights dimmed on Thursday's opening-night performance of California Suite at the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre. It was the perfect – and, let’s be honest, most obvious – song choice for this straightforward production of Neil Simon’s comedy.
Written as four distinct one-acts, California Suite’s only through-line is its location, home to different guests of the luxurious Beverly Hills Hotel's suite 203/204. Built in a pleasing way by Mike Skiles, this suite features a living room and bedroom, with a rough half wall separating them, that worked wonderfully for this production. Simon's comedy was written in 1976, and the music design by Jennifer Kingry helped cement the '70s vibe. However, the characters that director Dana Skiles presented were of a more timeless variety, which made the night more relevant.
Right away in “Visitor from New York,” before anyone else joined her on stage, Jessica Moore’s Hannah Warren – first seen on the phone – was so unlikable that it became clear why ex-husband William (the eerily calm Nicholas Waldbusser) divorced her, and why their daughter Jenny ran halfway across the country to get away from her. Moore’s snooty character voice was, for me, like hearing nails on a chalkboard, and Hannah, who was visiting from the East Coast, clearly garnered a similar negative reaction from William. It was Simon's fault, to be sure, but to start a production off on such a low note had me checking my program to make sure this comedy was supposed to be a comedy. With the Warrens so bitter with each other, this vignette was cold and sad, and adding to the stagnancy of the scene was the fact that the actors only rarely utilized the bedroom portion of the suite.
You know tension in the audience is thick when a flushed toilet elicits a chuckle, so it was no surprise that California Suite's subsequent “Visitor from Philadelphia” segment, with its ridiculous situational comedy, became my favorite of the evening. Matthew McConville plays the incredibly hung-over Marvin, who wakes to find Bunny (the lovely but silent Dee Raver) unconscious in his bed. Marvin doesn’t remember anything about the night before, and as he's unable to awaken the drunken Bunny with his wife Millie (Elle Winchester) on the way up to the room, Marvin’s logical brain goes out the window as panic mode sets in – and it sure was funny. Winchester demonstrated excellent comedic timing, and paired with the endearing McConville, the two effortlessly made for the best couple of the night. (Even given their issues, namely the lady of the night in that bed, I think Marvin and Millie will see their golden wedding anniversary.)
Keeping the proceedings classy was Jackie Patterson’s Diana, nominated for an Academy Award as she and husband Sidney (Jason Schaad) head to the ceremony at the start of “Visitors from London.” Patterson experienced a few trips of the tongue on Thursday, but this was easily explained away by the Oscar nominee's nerves prior to the awards show – and then, after Diana returns to the suite, she's three sheets to the wind. Diana and Sidney’s marriage of convenience, in truth, was slightly depressing, and I would've loved to have seen more camaraderie between Patterson and Schaad. But the characters' lack of motivation in regard to pleasing one another at least led Diana and Sidney to some of the best verbal jabs and most heartfelt conversations in the production.
Director Skiles brought back some familiar faces for “Visitors from Chicago,” and this one-act featured some of the best use of space the night had to offer. With four people in the hotel suite instead of the usual two, it made for some varied staging opportunities, though the room belongs to Waldbusser and Moore, reappearing as Mort and Beth Hollender. The piece opens with Beth having hurt her foot during a game of tennis and their friends and travel companions Stu and Gert (McConville and Winchester) coming to check on her, and here, Simon’s characters are needy and a little crazy, with both couples seemed to be pitted against each other.
The situation escalates into a giant physical brouhaha, and I don’t think anyone was expecting the WWE-style wrestling experience “Visitors from Chicago” delivers. But the hoots and hollers from the audience were the loudest of the evening. Waldbusser really came out of his shell during this segment; while he’s half the size of McConville, I was certain that Mort’s sheer passion made him a lock to win their battle. And while Moore’s Beth is as whiny as Hannah, on this occasion it played out as funny instead of annoying, and paired with the again-funny Winchester, the performers kept the humor building, ending this California Suite on a definite high note.
During the intermission, I overheard a few patrons discussing the trouble they were having hearing the cast. But I, personally, didn’t miss a word, and with Richmond Hill's stage easily transforming into Beverly Hills, the venue delivered a pleasant and amusing production.
California Suite runs at the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre (600 Hk Robinson Drive, Geneseo) through August 26, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)944-2244 or visiting RHPlayers.com.