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Theatre Review: Plaza Suite. By William Cook

Arts | By William Cook

Mr & Mrs: Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick in three different guises, in Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite

If only modern playwrights were more like Neil Simon. The late great American dramatist, who died in 2018, at the grand old age of 91, was a master craftsman – a peerless writer of well-made plays about flawed yet sympathetic characters.

If only modern playwrights were more like Neil Simon. The late great American dramatist, who died in 2018, at the grand old age of 91, was a master craftsman – a peerless writer of well-made plays about flawed yet sympathetic characters.

Simon’s plots are entirely plausible, his dialogue is utterly believable – and yet his dramas are far funnier than real life. He finds humour in every human situation. Like his greatest hit, The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite has all these qualities, in spades.

‘No other playwright has had a greater influence on American popular culture,’ claims the director of this traditional, conventional production, John Benjamin Hickey. ‘Without him, there would be no Frasier, no Seinfeld.’ I’m inclined to agree.

This play is really three one-act plays, each one a two-hander about a middle-aged man and a middle-aged woman.

There are two neat twists. First, all three plays are set in the same location, Suite 719 in the Plaza Hotel in New York City. And secondly, all three couples are played by the same man and woman. For the right actor and actress, it’s a marriage made in heaven. So how do these latest stars to tackle it, Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker, measure up?

Broderick and Parker are man and wife – they’ve been married since 1997 – and they’re both big fans of Neil Simon. Broderick made his award-winning Broadway debut in Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs; Parker worked with Simon on a TV version of The Sunshine Boys. So when they decided to embark on a joint project, Plaza Suite was a natural choice.

They were about to open on Broadway in 2020 when they were shut down by Covid. The show reopened two years later and became a Broadway hit (despite a further interruption when they both caught Covid). Now it’s transferred to London, for a limited West End run.

Simon created three contrasting playlets for his eponymous hotel suite: a domestic tragedy, a romantic comedy and a bedroom farce.

We start with tragedy: brittle housewife Karen Nash books Suite 719 for a night of passion with her husband Sam, a stressed-out, self-obsessed businessman. It’s their wedding anniversary and this suite was where they spent their wedding night, but Sam doesn’t seem to care.

Then comes the comedy: Jesse Kiplinger is a famous film producer who’s left his New Jersey home town far behind and now lives the high life in LA. Back in New York on business, he calls up his teenage sweetheart, Muriel Tate, and invites her over to Suite 719 for an afternoon of adulterous romance.

Finally comes the bedroom farce.

Roy and Norma Hubley have hired Suite 719 as a dressing room for their daughter’s wedding, which is due to take place downstairs. The only problem is their daughter has got cold feet. She’s locked herself in the bathroom, and they can’t coax her out.

The show gets off to a slow start. Broderick plays Sam Nash as a buttoned-up, constricted character, which is fair enough, but these personality traits stifle his performance, which in the first act seems stiff and stilted.

It’s only in the second act, when he plays the libidinous film producer Jesse Kiplinger (looking a lot like Austin Powers) that he loosens up, and the audience warms up.

In the third act, he really hits his stride as Roy Hubley, the father of the reluctant bride, and this performance brings the house down – but it’s quite a long time coming. A two-one win after going one-nil down.

Parker, conversely, needs no time whatsoever to get going. Her Karen Nash is a tender, poignant portrait of a dutiful, neglected wife. Her starstruck adulteress, Muriel Tate, is delightfully daft and ditsy. And Norma Hubley, her mother of the bride, is the perfect foil for Broderick’s distraught, indignant dad.

Parker is a natural comic actress, as she showed in Sex and the City. But it’s one thing doing it on TV; quite another doing it on-stage. She’s sassy and seductive, but it’s her vulnerability that makes her so attractive. Her comic timing is superb. Her husband runs her pretty close, but this is her show.

I wonder where they’re staying during this run, and what they get up to between performances? What a pity Neil Simon isn’t still around. Their London stay would make a good plot for one of his perfectly crafted comic plays.

This story was from March 2023 issue. Subscribe Now