A Neil Simon play on the Australian stage is quite a common phenomenon, and for good reason. In many ways his plays are ideal for an amateur theatre company, there are plenty of good roles, there is some terrific humor, and they have the playwright’s reputation to bring in the punters. If you didn’t know any better then you could almost be mistaken for thinking they are a sure thing. But in fact, as Jason Ingram Roth, the director of California Suite, points out in the program, they look really easy until you try to direct them and act in them.
What makes them so difficult? In the first place, they’re American comedy, and any production will fall flat unless you believe you are watching a bunch of Americans. This is no mean feat, but when pulled off it makes for some tremendous theatre, for there are few things we Australians like more than laughing at Americans. What we must ask, then, is whether Front Row Theatre’s California Suite is tremendous theatre? Well, quite frankly, it is, albeit only for a short time, though ironically not for its representation of Americans.
California Suite is a series of four theatrical vignettes linked by both theme and location, for they each take place in the “California Suite” of a Los Angeles hotel, and each deals with relationships, love, and marriage. The first, Visitor from New York, is a conversation between ex-spouses over their run-away daughter and deals as much with the former love between the two as it does with the daughter. The second, Visitor from Philadelphia, is on the surface a much lighter piece. What would be the worst thing your spouse could do, the playwright quietly asks us, while we laugh at the husband’s desperate attempts to hide from his wife the evidence of his scandalous affair, still half naked in the bed sheets.
The third, Visitors from London, is set on Oscar night and follows a seemingly (un)happy British actress (nominated for best actress) and her oh-so-British husband, and the lies and the love that keep them together. This is by far the best performed and directed of the four. Dale Murison as the ageing film actress is quite brilliant and delivers one of the best performances I have seen on a Brisbane stage all year. Her performance alone is worth the ticket price.
The final piece, Visitors from Chicago, is in comparison one of the worst pieces of theatre I’ve seen this year. The playwright delves into the friendships between two married couples who are travelling together on holiday, but instead of being as hilarious as it’s supposed to be, ends up being just stupid. I’m not sure what annoyed me most about this; the everything-is-about-me characters, or the woman in the audience who remarked it was the best of the four.
What to do? Book your tickets now! They are a bargain. You’ll enjoy the first two, love the third, and with number four, well, you can love it or hate it. Either way there will be some interesting discussion over dinner. Who would have thought a Neil Simon play could be so controversial? Certainly not me.
Directed by Jason Ingram Roth
Playing until 23rd July 2005: Fri-Sat 7.30pm
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval