Karen Nash is in room 719 at the Plaza Hotel, preparing a special anniversary evening for her husband, Sam. The room (designed by the talented Brian Mallgrave) is gorgeous — tasteful, luxurious, all gold and white. You could lose yourself in studying the details: the soft gray and white decorative sketch gracing the headboard of the bed, the sconces with little candle-shaped lamps, even the pretty light switches on the walls. But you won’t, because this is just the background for vivid, self-possessed Karen, who seems the kind of wealthy woman who knows exactly what she wants and possesses the room the minute she steps into it. She’s ordered hors d’oeuvres — no anchovies — and a bottle of champagne; she’s figured out the timing and activity for the evening. Now she’s waiting.
But the minute Sam comes in, you realize something is off. For one thing, he’s constantly correcting her: This isn’t the room where they spent their honeymoon night, as she believes; she has that wrong. She also has the date wrong, as well as the actual year: This is not the 24th anniversary, but the 23rd (or perhaps the other way around). It isn’t long before Karen starts to lose her happy self-assurance, and things go downhill from there.
“Visitor From Mamaroneck” is the first, and the most serious, of the trio of plays comprised by Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite, currently showing at the Arvada Center. There’s loneliness and estrangement beneath this play’s comic lines, and you can’t help feeling sorry for poor Karen, as the joy leaks from her evening — and almost certainly from her life.
The second play, “Visitor From Hollywood,” about memories of a teenage romance, is the lightest and flightiest. Famous and multiply awarded Hollywood director Jesse Kiplinger is visiting his small home town and re-connecting with Muriel, his teenage love. In she comes, blond and perky and wearing wrist-length white gloves: It may be 1968, but Muriel is stuck in the 1950s. Jesse is full of sentimental memories, along with a strong desire to rekindle their sex life. She’s obsessed solely by his fame, interrupting his every attempt at reminiscing with questions about events he’s attended and famous people he knows. Though this is all very funny, we realize as the dialogue unfolds that Muriel is a sad, lonely little soul, bored to tears with her small-town life and drinking far too heavily.
Finally, there’s “Visitor From Forest Hills,” which is pure farce. While wedding guests — and the groom — wait downstairs, the bride has locked herself in the bathroom of room 719 and is refusing to come out. Her desperate parents try every trick they can think of to lure her out, taking turns, beseeching, wailing, plotting, attempting to break down the door, and fighting fiercely the entire time over whose fault this entire predicament is. Soon, we fully understand the bride’s qualms about marriage.
So the evening travels from a dissolving marriage to one that’s just beginning, with a swift glance backward at a deluded first love.
I’d been puzzled about why director Lynne Collins chose to mount Neil Simon’s 1960s hit in the Arvada Center’s Black Box, which has tended to specialize in new and surprising work, but once I’d seen the production, I got it. There’s more to the script than first meets the eye — and there’s also a lot of wit and humor in the direction, from Mallgrave’s set to the perfect period costumes to the choice of music: some wonderful Frank Sinatra songs and an unexpected rock interlude.
None of this would matter, however, if the two actors who play the main roles in all three pieces weren’t so damn good. Kate Gleason transforms herself fully for each part. She’s as convincing as a confident, middle-aged matron as she is as a breathy young girl and, in the final play, a crazy woman operating on the edge of already shredded nerves. Each character is fully formed; each is a delight to watch. Gareth Saxe is equally versatile playing a dignified, if dishonest, businessman and an arrogant young movie producer. But it’s when he cuts loose in “Visitor” that he throws dignity to the winds and reveals the full extent of his comic talent. He and Gleason work beautifully together, and both have impeccable timing. By the end of the evening, the entire audience is roaring with laughter. And with the hopeful energy of the ’60s now so far behind us, isn’t laughter exactly what we need?
Plaza Suite, presented by the Arvada Center’s Black Box through November 10, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 720-898-7200, arvadacenter.org.
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