If you’re planning to write a sophisticated romantic comedy tinged with rue, why not go to Paris for the occasion? The city of light is, we all assume, the world capital of sophisticated romances tinged with rue. Accordingly, Neil Simon, who has long specialized in writing about urban Americans, is writing about urbane Parisians in his new comedy, “The Dinner Party,” the prolific playwright’s first Broadway foray in three seasons.
Some jet lag is to be expected, and “The Dinner Party” reveals more than a few indications of disorientation. Simon is stretching his talent in new directions here, and can be applauded for the effort, even if the results aren’t really successful. With a $2 million-plus advance, a whopping figure for a straight play, the show may be able to coast on audiences’ enduring affection for Simon, even if they are somewhat surprised by the dark, occasionally bitter tone of his new comedy.
The playwright is not employing the one-liner strafed formula that won him early success and was later co-opted by the TV sitcom format. He’s got a situation, certainly — three divorced couples trapped together in the private dining room of a chichi Paris restaurant — but Simon has more than mindless laughter in mind here.
The play begins lazily with an extended scene between the first two arrivals at a gilt palace representing the height of gaudy Parisian richesse (John Lee Beatty gets full marks for the campy faux-Fragonard mural that provides a backdrop for the play). The first is Claude Pichon (John Ritter), an antique book dealer who soon finds himself at conversational cross purposes with the second, Albert Donay (Henry Winkler). Albert (that’s Al-bear) is the puppyish dim bulb of the bunch. When Claude mentions that he owns a letter from Albert Einstein to one of his relatives, Albert pipes up in his dopey monotone, “Maybe that’s where he got the idea …”
They’ve been invited to the dinner by their divorce lawyer, and after much belabored comic banter, they’re joined by a third fellow, the supercilious Andre Bouville (Len Cariou), also a client of said lawyer. None of these fellows knows any of the others, but the first female to arrive turns out to be Claude’s ex-wife Mariette Levieux (the names get Frencher and Frencher, even as the dialogue wouldn’t be out of place at, uh, Gotham’s Alain Ducasse — to pull a name out of a hat). Arrivals five and six are Yvonne Fouchet (Veanne Cox), the mousy ex-wife of Albert, and, yes, Andre’s ex Gabrielle Buonocelli (Penny Fuller), who announces herself as the mastermind of the affair.
There’s a heap of contrivance in the plot’s orchestration. Exits and entrances are baldly arranged to allow each couple a moment of reckoning over the past; pretty much every character announces at some point that he or she is leaving at once, then concocts a reason not to; eventually the doors are locked and the phone is cut off, after which the imperious Gabrielle poses a game of questions designed, apparently, to reunite at least one of the couples. Most unclear is why she has any interest in, or even particular knowledge of, the other two.
Of course most plays rely on contrivance, and if Simon’s “Dinner Party” offered up a sufficiently tasty repast, these would be immaterial. But the playwright’s strength has never been psychological depth, and in attempting to explore the fissures that broke up these three marriages, he doesn’t really come up with much that’s fresh, to say nothing of French. The doting Albert smothered Yvonne with his obsessive attentions. Claude was jealous of Mariette; under his tutelage she’d become a talented novelist while his higher-brow literary ambitions went unfulfilled. Rather more unpleasant are the exchanges between Andre and Gabrielle, which refer repeatedly to things of a “sordid” and “vile” sexual nature.
“You weren’t the wrong man; we were the wrong couple,” says one ex-spouse to another. “God I hate marriage — the loving isn’t worth the misery,” announces another. “For the first time I know what real love is,” says a third, rebuffing a rapprochement. Such is the general level of insight here. (The level of Simon’s syntax is also, at times, distressingly low: “I stopped making love with you but rather at you,” says Andre to Gabrielle. Not quite sense, that, but at least we know what he means. At times the play sounds as if it was actually translated from the French, and not felicitously.)
There are pleasures, of course. Simon is still a peerless joke writer, and many individual lines are terrific. Albert, who followed Yvonne around constantly after their divorce, and yet never spoke to her, explains, “If I didn’t seek you out, how would you know I was ignoring you!” When Simon does mete out the laugh lines, they’re much appreciated amidst the less than captivating marital angst.
Adding to a general sense of dislocation is John Rando’s direction, which seems to consist of allowing each actor to imprint his or her own comic style on the proceedings. Winkler plays the dopey puppy-dog charm to death, and adds several bits of physical comedy that had the audience, I must faithfully report, in stitches. Ritter can deliver a snarky wisecrack, but resorts to shouting when heightened emotion is required. Both actors, best known for long stints in sitcoms, take the stage with an aggressively ingratiating attitude toward the audience. Stage vet Cariou has no such problem, but his character is notably unpleasant.
The women’s performances are more appealing, although they, too, are in distinctly different styles. Maxwell, looking wonderfully chic in a witty, Thierry Mugler-esque suit supplied by ace costume designer Jane Greenwood, approaches her role simply and honestly, and hers is the single character who really touches us. Fuller exudes a sparkling, smart charisma that brings some needed dignity to her character, who must endure the roughest handling at the hands of her ex. And Cox, who always inhabits her own loopy theatrical universe, happily takes us there whenever she is center stage (she even threatens to go into orbit at one delightful moment).
But Simon’s theatrical “Dinner Party,” like many a real one, never comes together satisfactorily, and for essentially the same reason — our insufficient affection for and interest in our fellow guests. Authentically Parisian or not, these characters are simply not drawn with enough depth and originality to sustain our sympathy and affection through a somewhat strangely catered meal.