The Dinner Party - Music Box Theatre on Broadway - August 27, 2001

Let me begin with a little quiz. What is the least likely subject for a Neil Simon play?

  1. The life of two newlyweds in 1960s New York.
  2. Two divorcees living together in 1960s New York.
  3. The adventures of a good-hearted taxi dancer in 1960s New York.
  4. The adventures of a Brighton Beach boy in 1940s New York.
  5. The adventures of the same man in the military in the 1940s.
  6. The adventures of the same man after he returns from the war.
  7. Six divorcees having a dinner party in 2000 France.

With The Dinner Party, Neil Simon was simply in over his head. What would compel him to write a play like this? What would compel anyone to write a play like this?

To be fair, I suppose the idea of three divorced couples gathering for a dinner party thrown by an unseen, unknown host could be interesting under the right circumstances. I'm just not sure the right circumstances could ever occur with Neil Simon at the helm. He has had some good successes, and he has written some good comedies. But Neil Simon has never been a brilliant playwright. His plays are often well constructed, but they have never really been anything special in terms of the quality of the writing. They have always been quite predictable and by the numbers, but effective when taken as such.

But The Dinner Party really needs more. It needs biting wit, devastating attacks, creation, and destruction, all in the course of the evening. Neil Simon could never provide that. He excels at lighter comedy, and more intimate, human, family drama. That world is really not correct for the world of The Dinner Party, so when you have men in tuxedos and nice suits and women in charming dresses and evening wear spouting surface-level platitudes and mostly low-humor jokes, the correct match of author and subject matter has not been achieved.

I feel both fortunate and sad that I missed the show's original cast. To be honest, I wish I could have seen John Ritter and Henry Winkler in the show--I'm less concerned about Jan Maxwell's contributions, though I'm sure she was fine. But, as such, I didn't feel too let down. I rather liked Larry Miller, even if he was a little stiff, and Jon Lovitz was... well, Jon Lovitz. I can't imagine most of what he was doing coming out of Henry Winkler's body, but anything's possible I suppose. Carolyn McCormick, as Maxwell's replacement, was also fine. Nothing special, but neither is her role, really.

Len Cariou has an undeniable charm and stature that works for his role as an apparel magnate, and he comes the closest to tossing off Simon's jokes as the dry humor that would best work for the show. Penny Fuller does well as his ex-wife, though she appears only in the last half of the show, and is saddled with some of the show's weakest writing. Veanne Cox, as Lovitz's character's ex-wife, Yvonne, gives the strongest overall performance. She is stiff, stuffy, noodle-like, dry, and spacey all at the same time. She is a gifted comic actress who does some great things with her role, and she has some genuine chemistry with Jon Lovitz. Her scenes are among the strongest in the show.

I could talk about John Lee Beatty's striking set design, but it would mainly be pointless. It's just a background for a sure-fire Neil Simon play. The Dinner Party, like so many of his plays, is a workhorse, like a painting where you can still make out the pencil outlines beneath. To critique all the problems in the writing would be mostly beside the point (three men are together, three women are together, each couple is alone by themselves, then they all have to face each other together, all quite by the numbers)--that's never been what Neil Simon's plays have been about.

But The Dinner Party, ultimately, doesn't feel like a Neil Simon play. Or, perhaps, I just don't want it to feel like a Neil Simon play. Even Simon's weaker works had a certain inner strength and humanity about them, elements that are clearly lacking in The Dinner Party. For all his years in the business, Simon has yet to grow up. His attempt to write an adult comedy of this sort feels as phony as a five year old's attempt at writing a romance novel might be. Regardless of the talent, sometimes, the usual is not enough. Predictably perhaps, The Dinner Party left me with an empty stomach.

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