CEDAR CITY — I’ve probably spoken it as frequently as I’ve heard it, the flippant cliche’ “if walls could talk.” As I ponder it now, I wonder to which walls I would be most inclined to lend an ear. Would I want to hear an epic tale following a set of characters over a long period of time? Or would I prefer a collection of short stories, a glimpse into a single moment with little opportunity for context or resolution?
I think that the deciding factor may be how well the wall could spin the story because, when told right, any story can be worth hearing. Neil Simon‘s London Suite plays out like a series of one-acts sharing only the setting in common. The style is somewhat akin to a song cycle, but without the songs. After watching four brief stays in suite 402: “Settling Accounts,” “Going Home,” “Diana and Sidney,” and “The Man on the Floor,” I found myself surprisingly satisfied with the brevity of each tale.
As twelve different characters played by six different actors told four different stories, I was most impressed by the way Simon gave each a distinct voice. Though the actors certainly added to the texture, bringing diverse backgrounds, skill sets, and interpretations, the variety was already provided in the script. My favorite language was that of Brian (played by Henry Ballesteros) whose literary aplomb was indicative of his career as a writer. As he told a story in which he was the main character, he added in descriptive modifiers, identifying his own actions with words often reserved for print, such as “tremulously.” A smart play on words had him turning Billy’s words (as voiced by Trevor Messenger) from an accusation about Brian’s having taking leave of his senses into an accusation of Billy having taken leave of Brian’s centses… and pounds. Unfortunately, my favorite alliterative moment featured language too colorful to include in this review, so I suppose my audience could be warned that the walls don’t censor.
In addition to the words themselves, the script was different in that it featured a very high ratio of monologue to dialogue. This required the actors to be able to command the audience alone for long periods of time. Although each of the six actors was more than competent in this regard, in the roles of both Brian and Mark, Ballesteros was the strongest of the ensemble. Whether it was the booming quality of his voice, his immaculate diction, or his physical commitment to each role, I found myself caught up entirely in whichever string of words he was orating. As for impressive dialogue, I was most drawn to the relationship between Lauren (played by Rachel Gilyard) and her mother Mrs. Semple (played by Alyson King) whose pacing accurately represented the quick manner in which mother and daughter tend to exchange conversation.
With the challenge of presenting four distinct stories on one constant set, director Richard Bugg managed to create movement that kept each scene lively without allowing the motion to become forced. As actors moved between the bedroom and common area through a doorway, to the imaginary window, through the entry door, into an offstage closet, toward the liquor counter, or around the couch, the pace and style of the movement changed to suite each character, plot, and mood. No one moved more nervously than Diana (played by King), a woman meeting with her ex-husband for the first time in six years. In contrast, no one moved with more comedic flair than Mark as he inched his way across the floor toward a ringing telephone, having just thrown out his back.
Attention to detail was there in every aspect of this Neil Simon Festival production. The lighting ebbed and waned perfectly mimicking the effect of a television in a dark room as Lauren slept on the couch awaiting her mother’s return from a late night out. The style and color of each shoe that crossed the threshold of suite 402 instantly gave information about the new inhabitants. This subtle layer attended to by costume designer Tonya Christensen added to the feeling of reality common to each story. A table, split down the middle by two colors of paint and set atop two separate but abutting floors, gave a distinct division between the bedroom and common room without physically separating the two areas, a detail scenic designer Brian Smallwood skillfully employed to keep the space open.
London Suite was very different from any other works I have previously had the opportunity to enjoy, but the idea of a common setting with unconnected stories is one that strongly appealed to me. By telling only the most pivotal moment of a story, Neil Simon required the audience to accept the thin back story and allow for ambiguous resolution. In the end, I found myself wanting to watch another set of characters check in to London Suite.