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A CurtainUp DC Review: The Dinner Party

by Susan Davidson 
One set, six characters -- three male, three female.  One hour and forty minutes, no intermission.  One premise: coupling and uncoupling involves complicated emotions.  When the lights go up on Neil Simon's thirty-first play -- headed for Broadway this fall -- the set reveals a private room in a fancy restaurant, in Paris.  The restaurant's wallpaper shows Fragonard-like crinolined misses striking coquettish poses;  the music is a corny rendition of that old chestnut -- marrons, in French -- "Paris Skies."  What is one to believe: that Paris is a city made for love?  That a dinner party attended by three now divorced couples is a place to dish the dirt?  There's not even a soupçon of subtlety here, just some missed connections. 

The common denominator  (heretofore unbeknownst to them) for the three ex-couples is that the same lawyer handled their divorces.  (Why he is not sliced to bits in the course of the evening remains another unanswered question.)  What follows -- in sitcom-ese -- is an exposition from each divorced spouse, the story of why they shucked marriage and turned their object of affection into an ex.  There are a few good jokes about the material aspects of divorce -- "she got half my money, half of the furniture and half of the dog" but no real guffaws. The millennial Neil Simon may be more introspective but he is not nearly as funny as the Neil Simon who wrote The Odd Couple. 

That may very well be the problem here:  Neil Simon is now very left coast, in touch with his feelings, popping television-type one-liners. Gone is the wonderful New York neurotic repartee.  One character is described as "communicatively challenged."  Another spouts the line, "our marriage was like a window that needed washing.  You know there's something out there but you can't see what it is."  Then there are the anti-marriage lines, such as marriage is "not worth it," and that married people are always cruel to one another.  "Love," says one of the characters, "is a state of mind not a legal contract." 

By which point some members of the audience were wondering whether they'd stepped into a brainstorming session at as greeting card company.  Not that The Dinner Party is worthy of sour grapes only.  Some of the performances are fine, most notably Len Cariou as the hard-nosed, well dressed businessman, and Henry Winkler as the nebbish who is not too bright.  As the older, somewhat manipulative femme fatale, Penny Fuller is stunning to look at and carries the second half of this intermissionless play, with great panache. 

Simon seems to be saying that marriage is difficult, painful, and never quite right and that the same can be true of divorce.  Losing what was once good hurts and often what one is left with is ambivalence, which is how this reviewer feels about The Dinner Party. 
by Neil Simon 
Directed by John Rando 

with Len Cariou, Veanne Cox, Penny Fuller, John Ritter, Anette Michelle Sanders and Henry Winkler 
Set Design: John Lee Beatty 
Lighting Design: Brian MacDevitt 
Costume Design: Jane Greenwood 
Sound Design: Jon Gottlieb 
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes with no intermission  
A production of Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum 
Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater (202) 467-4600, 
June 17 to July 16, 2000. 
Reviewed by Susan Davidson 7/3/2000 based on a 7/2/2000 performance. 
©Copyright 2000, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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