The Arvada Center's staging of Neil Simon's The Dinner Party makes for a pleasant evening of theater: mild, inoffensive, expertly staged and occasionally very funny.
Two men appear in the chi-chi private dining room of an expensive French restaurant. The play's contemporary, but the room, with its Fragonard-style mural, crystal chandelier and pink-and-gold ambience, seems eighteenth-century. The men don't know each other or why they've been summoned to this dinner, only that the invitation came from the lawyer who handled their divorces. Claude is the owner of a secondhand bookshop, Albert a car salesman who wants to be a painter (he paints abstracts of cars). They're joined by the wealthy and arrogant businessman Andre. As the three size each other up, speculate on what's going to happen and try to decide whether to stay or leave, the dialogue frequently sparkles. True, some of the humor is a little juvenile -- the jokes about Albert's sore finger (he injured it trying to fasten his bow tie), for example. But on the whole, the chat moves so fast and easily that you're laughing at a second sally before you realize that the one preceding it misfired.
Three more guests arrive, though the entrance of one is delayed until the beginning of the second act. As you half expected, these are the men's divorced wives. You discover that Claude left Mariette because he envied her success as a writer of romance novels: He himself wants to write -- but in the service of art, not commerce. Albert adores his scatty little Yvonne, but she married him and then left him twice. Gabrielle is the siren of the group, and she and Andre apparently plumbed some sordid sexual depths together.
This is where the script falters, depth being precisely what it lacks. Andre and Gabrielle can talk all they want about debauchery -- "There was nothing too vile for you to let me indulge in," he accuses her -- but the imagination just won't follow them. They seem too white-bread, too suburban, and the writing's too timid. You strain to imagine what on earth they might have been doing -- orgies with the neighbors? Games involving whips and chains? Adding to the weakness of the script, there seems to be no particular sexual chemistry between Rachel deBenedet's Gabrielle and Marcus Waterman, who plays Andre.
Even such light entertainment as I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change offers more insight into human relationships than this. You never feel that moment of "Oh, that's just the kind of argument I had yesterday" that a good sitcom provides. The script of The Dinner Party tells us that Andre's devotion smothered Yvonne, and while the revelation explains much of what's gone before, there's a coldness, a lack of felt experience here. It's as if Simon had acquired his ideas of marriage from therapy sessions and women's magazines.
For the most part, the acting at the Arvada Center is very good. In his ill-fitting rented tux, Duane Black is particularly effective as the hapless, out-of-his-league Albert, and he pairs beautifully with Amie MacKenzie, who's charming and silly and full of feeling and has a real gift for physical comedy. These two are by far the most human and interesting people on stage. As Claude, Rick Hilsabeck is the linchpin of the evening; he gives a strong, solid performance. Beth Flynn has some hilarious moments as Mariette, Marcus Waterman is effective as Andre, and Rachel deBenedet dazzles as Gabrielle. Sadly, these actors are betrayed by a script that gives them formulaic emotions and little individuality.
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