Neil Simon’s fast-paced comedy holds up in the #MeToo era

The Black Box Repertory’s solid rendition of the classic mid-20th century comedy, Plaza Suite, at the Arvada Center reminds us of how little human nature has changed in 50 years — and how much fashion and style has.

Overall, Plaza Suite stands up to the test of time. And while there may be a few cringe-worthy scenes from the perspective of today’s #MeToo movement, it’s easy to let them slide within the context of the play and instead focus on the timeless themes of love and marriage. Or in the case of Plaza Suite, the tumultuous turmoil of love and marriage.

If you’re not familiar with the Tony-nominated Plaza Suite: A Comedy in Three Acts, you’re missing out on one of Neil Simon’s sharpest and wittiest plays. And as with most successful comedies, the wisecracks and light-hearted banter are thin veils for the sadness and tragedy lurking just below. The play also showcases Simon’s knack for creating likeable but flawed characters who are relatable at some level.

So, while there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, you’re also left with an unsettling feeling akin to guilty pleasure.

Separate vignettes

The entire production takes place in hotel suite 719 at the upscale Plaza Hotel in New York City in 1968. Each “act” is actually a separate vignette based on different guests staying at the hotel. Although they share the same location and year, the characters and circumstances are unrelated.

In Act One, “Visitor from Mamaroneck,” the story focuses on a couple married 23 or 24 years (depending on whom you ask) celebrating their anniversary while teetering on the edge of divorce. Act Two, “Visitor from Hollywood,” showcases a disillusioned and divorced Hollywood producer attempting to seduce his high-school flame who’s now a New Jersey housewife. And the final act features two overwrought bride-to-be parents coaxing their daughter, who has locked herself in the bathroom, into getting married.

In the Black Box Repertory production, the same actors play different roles in each of the vignettes.

Solid production

Director Lynne Collins, who is also the Artistic Director of Plays for the Arvada Center, starts off the new season for the Black Box Repertory with a well-rounded, witty and insightful show.

Plaza Suite is fast-paced throughout, and even becomes fairly physical in the last act, and the Black Box Repertory’s production never misses a beat. The pacing and stage work are perfect and take full benefit of almost every inch of the stage. Not only are the living and bedroom areas of the suite a flashback to the swinging ’60s, the costumes from all three acts also harken back to those times. Every detail has been thought out, to the cut-glass ashtray on the dressing table and hair piece on the stylish housewife, to the mutton chops on the Hollywood producer and the music track played by the cleaning staff.

The stage has also been cleverly designed to allow the characters to get wet during a brief rainstorm in a nifty piece of design work thanks to scenic designer Brian Mallgrave.

Stellar cast

With only two actors playing the main couple in all three acts, director Collins nailed it by casting acting pros Kate Gleason and Gareth Saxe.

Veteran Denver-area actor Kate Gleason (Karen Nash, Muriel Tate and Norma Hubley) is no stranger to the Arvada Center. And her masterful portrayal of all three characters proved why she is a local favorite.

In the first act as Karen Nash, Gleason’s comedic timing is perfect as she smoothly soars through one snappy repartee after another while sashaying throughout the suite propelled by nervous energy and repressed emotions. She deftly captures the whimsy of the character without making her maudlin.

In addition, Gleason’s continuous small nudges with various props as she paces the rooms accurately mirrors her character’s desire to try to make the rooms perfect for her husband in hopes of rekindling the couple’s dissolving marriage.

Perhaps Gleason’s strongest role is as Norma Hubley in Act Three, where the action almost rises to the slapstick level by the end. Gleason seems to almost gleefully step it up for this role and ensures that Norma can hold her own against her raging husband, which prevents her from becoming a victim.

Gleason will be joining the new Black Box Repertory group of actors next spring.

Gareth Saxe (Sam Nash, Jesse Kiplinger and Roy Hubley) also pulled out all the stops in his first appearance at the Arvada Center. Saxe plays the main male lead in all three acts, although he’s almost unrecognizable as the Hollywood hipster, Jess Kiplinger, in the second act.

Saxe demonstrates the breadth of his acting abilities as he goes from the tightly wound business executive Sam Nash in Act One to the mercurial and overwrought Roy Hubley by the final act. His downtrodden, bedraggled physical appearance by the end is far removed from the ramrod straight, buttoned-up Sam. Never mind playing the seemingly laid-back Hollywood producer in the middle.

Saxe is spot-on with all the characters and, like Gleason, masters the witty repartee with exquisite timing in all three acts.

The supporting cast also pulled strong performances. Devon James plays supporting female characters, Jean McCormack, Mimsey Hubley and the chambermaid. Jihad Milhem, making his debut at the Arvada Center, portrays the bellhop and Bordon Eisler. JC Williams steps out from behind the curtain from his typical role as a member of the deck crew to play the waiter with aplomb.

And, as previously mentioned, the entire production was well crafted, with lighting design by John Olson; sound design by Andrew Metzroth; costume design by Janice Benning Lacek; and wig & makeup design by Richard Krammes. The stage manager keeping it all running smoothly is Christine Rose Moore.

Black Box Repertory’s Plaza Suite is definitely worth a visit, or revisit if you’ve seen the play elsewhere, for the laugh-out-loud moments of a Simon classic and the quality of the local production. You won’t be disappointed.

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