Seeing Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker in PLAZA SUITE brought to mind the real surprise that theatergoers had when the show originally opened in 1968.
By then, SUITE’s Neil Simon had been represented on Broadway for 323 of 363 of the previous weeks. That’s an 88.9% success rate over a seven-year span.
COME BLOW YOUR HORN, his first full-length comedy, began the run on Feb. 21, 1961. This funny coming-of-age story set the tone for Simon’s plays and musicals that would offer one wisecrack followed by a hilarious observation that would then be topped by a real knee-slapper.
Be it LITTLE ME, BAREFOOT IN THE PARK, THE ODD COUPLE, SWEET CHARITY – hell, even THE STAR-SPANGLED GIRL – you could depend on “your friendly neighborhood gagman,” as Walter Kerr called Simon, to deliver punchy punch lines.
So in 1968, what a surprise it was – and not a particularly pleasant one – when PLAZA SUITE stated with a one-act play that dourly showed a doomed marriage.
In “Visitor from Mamaroneck,” Karen has decided that she and Sam will celebrate their 24th wedding anniversary in the same Plaza hotel suite where they’d spent their first honeymoon night. To her dismay, an overworked Sam arrives late and makes the suite his de facto office rather than a love nest. After his secretary Miss McCormick arrives with bad news, he tells her that he must return to his place of business.
Karen smells an affair. Sam makes a few denials, but eventually owns up to the liaison. What happens after that is truly grim.
THIS was a Neil Simon play? Apparently, the gagmeister wanted to stretch himself and show he could write Something Serious. Sure, there were plenty of funny lines; Karen says she suspected an affair because “You were working three nights a week and we weren’t getting any richer.” But the play reached a point where there wouldn’t be a laugh to be had.
Now that our initial shock at seeing Simon’s dramatic intentions has passed, we can closer examine “Visitor from Mamaroneck” and see that it doesn’t make sense on a basic level.
After all, Sam had to know for some time in advance that Karen had booked the Plaza suite. A husband who wants to keep from his wife that he’s having an affair would NOT enter their former honeymoon suite in a foul mood, complain about her looking older and eventually do worse than that.
What’s far more believable is that earlier that week in the privacy of his office, Sam would say to Miss McCormick “I can see you Wednesday and Friday, but Thursday’s out. It’s my anniversary, and I’ll be spending it with Karen. I’ll be overly romantic so that she’ll come away thinking I’m still very much in love with her and remain unaware that I’m seeing someone on the sly. It’s actually a good opportunity to throw her off the scent.”
As for this production, we might fear that Broderick might not have the gravitas to play Sam – Leo Bloom and Felix Unger are not in the same wheelhouse – but he does better than might be expected. Parker starts out with an almost parodic suburban accent, but as time went on, she either toned it down or made us accustomed to it.
Back to 1968: The next two one-acters yielded enough laughs that of Simon’s 26 (!) Broadway plays, PLAZA SUITE became his third-longest running non-musical; only BAREFOOT and BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS – not even THE ODD COUPLE – had a longer Broadway shelf life. By the time PLAZA SUITE closed, Simon’s achievement had increased to 460 weeks out of an even 500 – a 92% Broadway presence in fewer than 10 years.
Now in 2022, however, how would “Visitor from Hollywood” play? Jesse Kiplinger, a successful film producer (admittedly of shlock), invites his high-school girlfriend Muriel to the Plaza. He doesn’t want to reminisce or even show off; straight seduction is on his mind. The now rich-and-famous mogul sees his old love as easy prey, and while Muriel isn’t as malleable as he would have hoped, we suspect he’ll get what he wants.
A play that makes light of such a situation in our far more enlightened times? However, Parker and director John Benjamin Hickey solved the problem. They made this Muriel hope upon hope that Jesse summoned her to Suite 719 for just this reason.
Why, though, must Broderick give Jesse a funny way of walking? In a posh suite with his money, he should bestride the narrow suite like a Colossus. Otherwise, it’s a fine performance.
“Visitor from Forest Hills” has always been PLAZA’s funniest play. Roy and Norma Hubley have rented the hotel’s most swank function room for their daughter Mimsy’s wedding. It’s downstairs, however, and she’s still in Suite 719 where she’s locked herself in the bathroom along with her second, third and fourth thoughts about tying the knot that strikes her as Gordian.
If Roy doesn’t quite move heaven and earth to get her out, he comes darn close. (One scene has a new special effect that will remind you of a late-career Hitchcock film.) As it turns out, when Mimsy’s reason is revealed, many long-time marrieds in the audience will nod in understanding.
Here’s where Broderick is most in his element: The Victim. (Leo Bloom and Felix Unger again, as well as the incompetent private in BILOXI BLUES.) Parker shines, too, in going back and forth from angst to anger.
Fair warning: under NO circumstances should any ticket-buyer accept a seat on the right side of the house. Usually reliable set designer John Lee Beatty has made a terrible miscalculation in placing the suite too far back from the lip of the stage. As a result, only those in house left or center will be able to see Norma and Roy banging on that bathroom door, where a considerable amount of time is spent.
And what about Mimsy’s oh-so-short wedding dress that would almost be right for a cocktail party? True, there were brides in 1968 that went for a “mod” look, so esteemed costume designer Jane Greenwood – no one has amassed more Tony nominations in this department – was well within her rights to make this choice. However, a gloriously classic floor-length wedding gown would have made a far more arresting image.
We don’t need such a then trendy dress to remind us that PLAZA SUITE takes place in that era, for before the scrim rises on each one-acter, a projection tells us that we’re somewhere between late winter 1968 and early summer 1969.
Some theatergoers won’t need such a reminder; a mention of Jill St. John will be enough of a compass to guide old-timers. Others, however, will profit from the projections that reveal that the plays don’t take place in the here-and-now.
The best proof that PLAZA SUITE is a period piece is the fact that it debuted when Parker was two years old and Broderick was five. All right, they were pushing three and six, given that their birthdays were only five weeks away. But you get the point.