by Clark Groome
Laughter being, as it is, the best medicine, there is lots of theatrical evidence why Neil Simon’s nickname is “Doc.”
Simon’s “Hotel Suite,” Act II Playhouse in Ambler’s current offering (through March 23), is actually a compilation of scenes from his three “Suite” plays: “Plaza Suite,” “California Suite” and “London Suite.”
In each of the three plays, couples play out significant moments in their lives in hotel rooms. Each of the plays stands well on its own, of course, but Simon wanted to combine the two scenes that involve Diana and Sydney, one of which was set in “California Suite” in 1975 and the other in “London Suite” nine years later.
To those two scenes he has also added another from “California” and one from “Plaza Suite.”
The first scene is about Diana (Karen Peakes) and Sydney Nichols (Leonard C. Haas), who are in California to attend the Oscar ceremonies. She’s been nominated for the Best Actress Award. We see her getting ready for the ceremony and later after she has lost.
The talk is funny. There is, however, a poignancy, a depth that is surprisingly moving. And therein may lie the key to Doc Simon’s most effective prescriptions: humor to really be curative must deal openly and honestly with the pain we are laughing to overcome.
Simon is most effective in the two scenes that involve Diana and her husband-in-the-first-scene/old-friend-in-the-second, Sydney. The first act also contains the other scene from “California Suite,” this one about Marvin (Tony Braithwaite) and Millie Hubley (Tracie Higgins), a couple from Philadelphia who take separate planes to L.A. for his nephew’s bar mitzvah. Since he arrived a day early, he ends up in the hotel bed with a hooker he doesn’t remember anything about. When his wife arrives, he tries at first to hide his indiscretion (who’s still out cold in the bedroom) and later to explain it.
When “Hotel Suite” made its world premiere at the Walnut 15 years ago, the laughter and emotion were brought handsomely to life. The current version is less successful.
There are a couple of reasons for that. First, some of the material seems somewhat dated. To overcome that and to make it as funny as possible, director Matt Silva has pulled out all the comedic stops in his actors’ arsenal.
The result is that a lot of the production seems forced. The two principal men, getting Simon’s complex combination of comedy and pathos just right, are characters. Braithwaite and Haas are two of the area’s most respected and talented actors. You can see why here.
On the other hand, the two principal women, who have done fine work in other productions, played their material for laughs. Their often scenery-chewing moments made them more caricature than character.
There are moments, in the scenes in California and London, when we see what could have been if all had played it straight. Too bad they didn’t because the material in the scenes in California and London is quite strong. The final scene, set at the Plaza in New York, however, isn’t nearly the quality of the other three and goes on too long.
The physical production is a beauty. Roman Tatarowicz’ hotel suite adapts to all three scenes, and I’d stay there in a minute if someone else would pay for it. Jill Key’s costumes, James Leitner’s lighting and Sonny Leo’s sound are all first-rate.
Act II’s “Hotel Suite” is a pleasant divergence, with some funny and a few moving moments. With a more consistent cast and directorial approach, it could have been so much more than that.
For tickets call 215-654-0200 or visit www.act2.org.