Volume XVII, Issue 37 # September 10 - September 16, 2009

Spotlight on Theatre

photo by Joanne Wilson

Front row, left to right: Joanne Bauer as Yvonne Fouchet, Steven Rosenthal as Albert Donay. Back row, left to right: Jerry Khatcheressian as André Bouville, Heather Tuckfield as Gabrielle Buonocelli, Heidi Toll as Mariette Levieux and David O'Brien as Claude Pinchon.

Guests leave 2nd Star’s Dinner Party hungry

reviewed by Jane Elkin

Levity is seasoned with solemnity in The Dinner Party, Neil Simon’s 31st play and 2nd Star Productions’ plat du jour, as the king of comedy asks the meaty questions at the heart of all enduring relationships:

First, what are the worst and the nicest things your spouse has done for you? And second, would you choose that partner all over again?

It should be a gourmet spread, and the opening is strong. Yet we guests leave still hungry for more.

Set in the private dining room of a fine Parisian restaurant — the very room where Napoleon conquered Josephine — the play summons three divorced French couples for a surprise reunion. They are kindreds in mind, soul and body: Mariette and Claude share a passion for the written word; Yvonne and Albert share sweet but anxious natures; Gabrielle and André share … well, their intimacy defies description.

The men arrive first: Claude (David O’Brien), a suave bookseller and aspiring author; Albert (Steven Rosenthal), a neurotic rental car agent; and André (Jerry Khatcheressian), a supercilious haberdasher. They have only their divorce lawyer in common, and they hope he’ll introduce them to three lovely dining companions.

Instead, the other guests are their ex-wives: the saucy Mariette (Heidi Toll), a writer of modest talent and immodest success, for which Claude cannot forgive her; ditzy Yvonne (Joanne Bauer), an anxious chatterbox plagued by Albert’s silent stalker routine; and seductive Gabrielle (Heather Tuckfield), a symbolic black widow spinning webs to recapture André.

Emotions flare like brandy in the flame of long-simmering grudges. Neil Simon can make even marital discord funny, as the feud between Mariette and Claude illustrates, when the “communicably challenged” Albert is pressed into service as their hapless liaison. But best of all is Rosenthal’s silent spat with his dinner partner, Bauer. This couple is so convincing you’d swear they really were married.

When the zingers, laughter and tears subside, however, there are casualties in this battle of the sexes. Primary among them is the company’s joie de vivre, and for that I blame director Charles W. Maloney. Simon’s writing, even when serious, demands a light touch, and this production turns ponderous.

Underlying the malaise is Maloney’s failure to embrace the Frenchness of the play. There’s a reason it’s set in the city of love. But these characters play as stock Simon-esque urban Americans. Even poor Albert’s name is mispronounced in the American fashion. Only Khatcheressian, with his native Lebanese accent, seems remotely cosmopolitan.

Another confounding choice is the intermission just a half hour into a 90-minute, one-act show, breaking the mood just as actors and audience are getting warmed up.

If the cast can relax into their romantic misadventures, this show could be very satisfying. But this Dinner Party opened with caviar hors d’oeuvres followed by an entrée of chipped beef.

Playing thru Sept. 19 at 8pm FSa; 3pm Su @ Bowie Playhouse, Whitemarsh Park, Bowie. $20; rsvp: 410-757-5700; www.2ndstarproductions.com.