Thursday 15 February 2024

Theatre review: Plaza Suite

Back at the theatre after another unscheduled, Covid-related break of a couple of weeks, and it's to one of the year's first London visits from big US names: Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick are the real-life couple playing three different pairs in Neil Simon's Plaza Suite. Wonder if they'll explore the country while they're here? Probably best to steer clear of Liverpool, that's Cattrall country. And hopefully he won't be driving. Anyway, John Benjamin Hickey directs Simon's portmanteau of stories taking place at the end of the 1960s in the same suite of New York's Plaza Hotel overlooking Central Park. For the first couple it's a significant location - if Parker's Karen has got the right room, that is: She and her husband Sam are staying there for the night while their house gets redecorated, but she's decided to surprise him for their anniversary by booking the same suite they stayed in on honeymoon.

Except she's very possibly got the room wrong, as well as the date, and the amount of years they've been married. She's generally known for being terrible with numbers, including getting her own age wrong (he complains that at the very least she could conform to the feminine stereotype and knock a couple of years off her age, instead of adding to it.)

Sam on the other hand is a successful businessman who's always on top of the numbers, with the help of his colleagues and his secretary Jean (Charlie Oscar.) If his not noticing the romantic gestures his wife makes and spending a lot of nights working late at the office suggests he's the one living a midlife stereotype, Karen's going to find her suspicions are depressingly accurate. This is very much the bittersweet start to the evening, with the one-liners witty but acerbic, and a definite undercurrent of sadness that only comes more to the fore over this first hour.

There’s two, slightly shorter pieces after the interval, with the comedy getting increasingly broad – Broderick’s Jesse is a Hollywood producer in town for a meeting, and after three failed marriages he’s arranged a nostalgia-tinged reunion with Parker’s Muriel, his high-school girlfriend who’s travelled specially from New Jersey. She’s now married with three children (a boy and a girl) but he’s not the only one who’s never quite got over the teen romance – she’s followed his career so closely in the showbiz papers she knows it better than he does.

Finally Parker is Norma, who enlists her husband Roy to help get their daughter Mimsey (fnar) out of the bathroom where she’s locked herself before her wedding to Border, who’s played by a curly comedy wig with Eric Sirakian attachment. As well as the bickering between the couple this scene goes all-out into physical comedy and slapstick (were the Plaza’s carpets really so slippery, I guess this is before the days of Health & Safety checks) but serving as the end of the evening it also feels the most drawn-out, like an extended sketch that takes too long to get to its fairly obvious punchline. The evening as a whole feels like it’s a little bit too long, but for the most part the comedy still raises smiles if not a lot of belly-laughs, and if some of the gender politics makes you wince, there’s plenty of 1960s plays that have aged much worse.

Parker definitely has the edge over her husband in giving a bit more variety in character and energy between the three scenes; Broderick offers the full vocal range from Depressed Kermit the Frog, via Austin Powers Kermit the Frog, to Drunk Kermit the Frog. Maybe they’re just giving back the performances the audience are there for: On the one hand I’m not snobbish about getting in new audiences, on the other you can sometimes tell when people are only there to see someone from Sex and the City in real life and have no other interest in the play. Quite funny when Parker gets the full, obnoxious Broadway round of applause on her first entrance, then everyone half-heartedly remembers they should probably do it when her husband enters as well; less funny when a woman in my eyeline would literally only deign to look at the stage when SJP was on it, and was straight back on WhatsApp the second she was off. I did like John Lee Beatty’s set design for the titular luxury suite – it’s simultaneously opulent and somehow bleak, which seems apt for the stories being told in it. All things told Plaza Suite has stood up fairly well, but won’t prove hugely memorable for me.

Plaza Suite by Neil Simon is booking until the 13th of April at the Savoy Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

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