Playing thru August 14, 2010

CEDAR CITY—  Lucky me! It was opening night for the Neil Simon Festival at the Heritage Theater in Cedar City, which included a pre-performance synopsis by Richard Bugg, festival founder. Bugg is a film and television actor, a stage director and a professor of theater at Southern Utah University. Bugg’s commentary of how the festival got its start began by explaining how he had stumbled upon a list of Neil Simon’s 38 plays and was shocked to realize that he was only 1 short of Shakespeare’s total.

After further searching, Bugg was surprised to learn that there were no festivals celebrating Mr. Simon’s many plays. Bugg bravely decided to give Mr. Simon a ring, hoping to speak to an assistant. Instead he heard, a “Hello” from Neil Simon himself. With a racing pulse, Richard proceeded to ask permission to create the first Neil Simon festival. Mr. Simon said that sounded great “but why Utah?” Mr. Simon clearly had a skewed view of Utah having never been here before. But now eight years later—and certainly not without struggles—faithful patrons are able to continue to enjoy yet three Neil Simon plays every year!

Tonight’s offering, California Suite, is a 1976 play inspired by the many “interesting marriaed couples” in Hollywood that Simon had known and he felt it was a topic most people could relate to.  But rather than write a play about married people in California, he decided to write about married couples who visited California. The comedy is divided into four small plays which examine the lives of five couples (1 divorced) who stay, at different times, in the same suite (#203) at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Two of the “mini-plays” were written with a more serious tone laced with comedy.  The other two were written to be just plain funny.

Just as Neil Simon intended, I found myself connecting with the visitor from New York, having gone through a divorce and the challenges of sharing children. Hannah, a magazine writer from back East, has traveled to (dreaded) LA to recover her teenage daughter after she had run away to live with her play write father William. The squabbling, divorced couple has to decide who their daughter will live with for the next six months.  Despite the reason for their serious meeting, I found myself laughing and relating nonetheless.

Conservative businessman Marvin is the visitor from Philadelphia, who has come into town for his nephew’s bar mitzvah. After uncharacteristically drinking a bottle of vodka during the course of the night, he wakes to find a drunken hooker unconscious in his bed. Knowing that he is soon to expect his wife’s arrival, he makes many hysterical attempts to wake and remove her from the room.

The visitors from London are British actress Diana, a first-time nominee for an Oscar, and her husband Sidney, a gay antique dealer who has become less and less discreet about his sexual preferences. Diana knows she doesn’t stand a chance of winning but she primps in the mirror, paces, and frets as she anticipates her possible moment in the spotlight. Their marriage of convenience is much more strained when they return from the event as sore losers, disheveled and quite drunk.  (To my surprise, it was in this section of the play that the “F Bomb” was launched.) Although entertaining, this playlet was probably my least favorite.

The story about the visitors from Chicago taught me that even the best of friends shouldn’t go on a 3 week vacation together! Stu and Gert and Mort and Beth are two wealthy couples who are best friends and are sharing a much-needed vacation. Things begin to unravel quickly when Beth is hurt during their mixed doubles tennis match and Mort repeatedly accuses Stu of having caused her injury.  Of course, tempers rise, which results in some hysterical swearing  and ends with everyone screaming in pain. The character’s drawls are hilarious and reminded me of the movie Fargo with the heavy North Dakota inflections. This playlet was my favorite of the night!

Surprisingly, the cast consists of only 4 performers and 1 silent actress with no lines (Bunny, an inebriated hooker, played by Kristen Henley, who generally stayed unconscious and under the bed covers.) Richard Hill (who played William, Sydney, and Stu during the course of the evening) started the first playlet with an uncomfortable performance where I felt painfully aware that he was delivering lines and “acting.” However, as he continued, Richard warmed into an amazing performance. Although all four performers were talented, I think Jed Broberg (as Marvin and Mort) had to be my favorite of the night. No one missed a beat in delivering their witty and sarcastic comebacks and the cast’s comedic timing was right on spot!

The play took place in a cozy setting in a thrust configuration (three sides of intimate viewing). Previous Neil Simon Festival patrons will surely appreciate the wonderful donation of new, comfortable seating. My harshest critique would be the two or three times during the play that music from somewhere outside the theater distracted from the scenes, almost like there was a nightclub upstairs. It was very annoying and I could see that it was bothering many others, as they were looking around and were whispering with surprise that it kept happening.

The hour drive to Cedar City made me recall seeing portions the TV version of California Suite (loaded with stars like Jane Fonda, Alan Alda, Walter Matthau, Richard Pryer and Bill Cosby). My vague recollection was that I was bored stiff.  That said, this play was a pleasant surprise as it was very funny and entertaining. I would recommend California Suite to anybody looking for a good laugh.

Note: This play would probably be rated PG-13 as it contains some strong language & adult subject matter.

California Suite plays at The Heritage Theater (105 N. 100 E.) in Cedar City through August 14th – Wednesdays & Saturdays at 2:00pm and Thursdays at 7:30pm. Tickets are $20-25 (with a 10% discount for purchasing a ticket to all three shows at the festival). For more information: Call the Neil Simon Festival Box Office (435) 327-8673; Toll-free: (866) 35-SIMON (866-357-4666) or visit the festival web page.