Divorce, particularly the messy variety in which unfinished business haunts former spouses for years on end, is the main course at Neil Simon’s latest dissection of the middle-aged human condition, “The Dinner Party.” Simon brings together a collection of seeming strangers, bound only by the divorce lawyer they shared, and attempts to limn the pain and lack of resolution behind three failed marriages. With the weight of a personal memoir, this is a talky and confrontation-driven work that lacks both universal revelations and hearty laughs. It would need more sustenance to break through on Broadway, where comedy has had a tough time of late.
“The Dinner Party” is a predictable hour and a half that spends the first 60 minutes in a rapid-fire stream of jokes, put-downs and absurdist reactions to the surprises at hand. At one point, a character is described as “speaking without periods or commas”; the same could be said for much of the first two-thirds of “The Dinner Party.” For the closing half-hour, Simon calms everyone down and gets six disparate individuals onto the same page, all examining the worst and the best about their partners.
Simon has shipped his usual batch of characters across the Atlantic Ocean to present-day Paris, giving them French names such as Andre and Mariette, yet imbuing them with all-American characteristics. (Many viewers may well wonder why these manifestly American people have French names.) Long a geographically focused playwright, Simon has often turned locales into an extra character; here Paris signifies nothing.
The men are introduced first and, as usual, the characters are making the turn from 40 to 50, superficially well-off and no strangers to the better things in life. Curtain opens on Claude Pichon (John Ritter) admiring a fresco at a three-star restaurant in Paris when Albert Donay (Henry Winkler) bursts in, nervous and panicked. The two are in tuxedos and immediately set to talking about the curious nature of this particular party. They don’t know each other, they don’t know who else is dining and they come from two different walks of life: Donay rents automobiles and paints, Pichon is a rare book dealer.
Enter the wealthy Andre Bouville (a stately Edward Herrmann), who immediately mistakes the two for waiters and then jumps into the verbal fray between the simpleton Donay and the taste-minded Pichon (echoes of “Art”?). Still, the reason for their gathering remains a mystery.
Guest No. 4, Marriette Levieux (Annette Michelle Sanders as the play’s most intriguing figure), arrives and is instantly shocked to find herself in the company of her ex (Pichon) and a man she dated once (Bouville). The play’s direction becomes apparent as the former wives Yvonne Fouchet (Veanne Cox) and Gabrielle Buonocelli (Frances Conroy) stream in. Upon seeing Donay, a flustered Fouchet immediately wants out; Buonocelli asserts herself as the hostess, the one who will direct these proceedings and somehow make sense of this all.
Once Simon has the guests assembled, the focus is sharpened. Characters are drawn as couples, not quite male-female mirror images, but with a clarity that makes the attraction between each not only plausible but likely. Fouchet and Donay are clearly two nutty peas in a pod; Pichon and Levieux had a love of the written word to share; and the Bouville-Buonocelli marriage had fortune, passion and pretense. Yet as Simon shifts gears to let us in on what went wrong, he turns to a hackneyed device: The Question. Bouville locks the doors and ends the matrimonial exposition by asking, “What’s the worst thing your ex-spouse ever did to you?”
Play comes to a screeching halt as each couple goes through tales of peccadilloes, faux pas and overboard devotion. In the end, Simon suggests that divorce is a result of missed opportunities and misunderstandings — making a marriage work requires a good airing out and a break from some heated arguments. Sentiments turn sweet at the end of “The Dinner Party” as absence makes the heart grow fonder for two of the three couples. Unfortunately, this is a little hard to swallow after an hour of recriminations.
Save for Levieux’s bout of claustrophobia and its scattered staging, director John Rando keeps the players nicely intersecting. Winkler and Cox establish a rapport that has a real depth, and their quirkiness gives the play some charm. Ritter plays Pichon as a proud man shamed, which he articulates well. Best of all, there are no remnants of the Fonz or Jack Tripper.
Sanders, who was understudy to Rita Wilson up until last week, conveys a distinct passiveness in their relationship as Pichon’s ex. Herrmann brings elegance to his every line. Conroy plays his ex-wife broadly and with bitterness.
John Lee Beatty’s set is the star of this production, making spectacular use of the Taper’s circular stage. The restaurant is decorated in Louis XIV furnishings with a table for six in the rear and a few chairs scattered about. The fresco that arches around the action is pleasant to the eye yet never overwhelming. Play opens and closes with some gentle chamber music that works as wallpaper, neither adding nor detracting from this dance of former lovers.