This review of Neil Simon's California Suite at Studio Theatre Long Island was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
Written by Neil Simon
Directed by Marian Waller
Studio Theatre Long Island
141 South Wellwood Avenue
Lindenhurst, New York 11757
Originally produced by the Center Theatre Group, Neil Simon's California Suite premiered on April 23, 1976 at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, California, where it ran until June 5th. The play opened on Broadway at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on June 10, 1976 and closed on July 2, 1977, after 445 performances and 4 previews. It contains 4 playlets (each about 1/2 hour long) with each story set in Suite 203-204 in The Beverly Hills Hotel.
In Visitor From New York, Hannah Warren, a Manhattan workaholic flies to Los Angeles to retrieve her 17-year old daughter Jenny, who ran away over Thanksgiving break to be with her successful screenwriter father. Hannah and William (now known as Billy) have been divorced for 9 years. He has no legal visitation rights but Hannah has permitted him to have their daughter for the summers. Now Jenny wants to spend her last year of High School in Los Angeles before heading off to college. Billy likes his new less stressful life. He no longer sees a therapist and has given up drinking. He doesn't miss the pretentiousness of their former elitist, pseudo-intellectual friends in Manhattan, East Hampton, and Martha's Vineyard. For reasons unknown, William is still somewhat attracted to Hannah's personality, and Hannah knows her ex-husband well enough to have ordered from room service both a tea with lemon and a double scotch on the rocks, the two drinks he will end up asking for during their visit. Hannah is a New York snob and a complete bitch, who relentlessly attacks both her ex-husband and Los Angeles every opportunity she gets (what he calls her "smart ass conversation"). Hannah attacks Los Angeles by saying it "smells like an over-ripe cantaloupe" and contemplates she would get "constipation of the mind" should she ever move out there. She also asks him whether he still lives in Hardy Canyon when she knows its name is Laurel Canyon ("Laurel/Hardy - same difference"). On a personal level, Hannah attacks William by suggesting he is not Jenny's father ("they've been very slow coming back with the blood test"), that his "California Clothes" make him look "like the sweetest young 14-year old boy," and that while he was "good between the sheets," she needed to fantasize about other people during their lovemaking because "sometimes we must have our own private fantasy to get us to the top of Magic Mountain." She lobbed additional "spears" at him and his only retort was when he told her, "New York is not Mecca - it just smells like it." One line I particularly liked was when Hannah said, "I feel like an artist selling a painting I don't want to part with," to which he responded, "Don't worry. I'll frame it and put it in a good light for you."
In Visitor From Philadelphia, conservative, middle-aged, Jewish businessman Marvin Michaels awakens to discover a prostitute named Bunny unconscious in his bed after she consumed six margaritas and a bottle of vodka. Marvin and Millie (his wife of 26 years with whom he has two children) took separate flights to Los Angeles (to avoid the tragedy of both of them potentially dying at the same time) in order to attend the bar mitzvah of Marvin's brother Harry's son. Harry is four years younger than Marvin, who bought his brother his first woman when he was still a virgin. Seeking to return the favor when Marvin arrived a day earlier than his wife, Harry told him that when he returns to his room, "there will be a gift there for you." Marvin awakens in the morning to find Bunny still in his bed wearing his pajamas. He panics and tries to get her to wake up and leave. He even pleads with God to make her move promising "I'll never be a bad person again for the rest of my life." When his wife Millie arrives, he tries to hide his indiscretion and hilarious scenes follow as he tries to keep his wife off the bed and out of the bedroom. He eventually needs to confess his adultery but in trying to get his wife to forgive him, he tries a number of defenses, including "She was a surprise gift. I didn't even pay for it," "We were both drunk. Do you think I could've done this sober," and "Not even did I not enjoy it. I don't remember it." My favorite line was when Marvin went to hug his wife and she stopped him saying, "Not in front of the hooker."
The Visitors From London are British actress Diana Nichols, a first-time nominee for the Academy Award for Best Actress, and her husband Sidney, a bi-sexual antique dealer. While they have been together for 12 years, Sidney has led "a very gay life" and while he has "never hidden behind a door in his life," he claims he has always been discreet with respect to his dalliances, unlike his wife. When Diana Nichols loses the Academy Award, she gets blotto and becomes increasingly needy and insecure becoming more confrontational and unforgiving regarding her husband's sexual encounters with men. She questions who the young actor was he was speaking to all evening at the ball (who was seated at their table and with whom he shared a butter plate) and asks whether he "carved his phone number in the butter for you." When she learns his name was Adam, she says, "Adam - like the first man - but not the first man in your case." She then taunts him by asking, "Are you upset you didn't get to wear this dress?" to which he finally responds, "Well, if I had, it would've hung properly." After eventually calling her husband a faggot, she apologizes and asks, "Why do you put up with me?" to which he honestly says, "The circle of prospects I suspect" but he also confesses, "I love you more than any woman I've met." Sidney reflects that they probably stay together because "we're both a refuge for our disappointment out there." He truly does love his wife and says "You have half a husband and three-quarters of a career, and you deserve 100% of everything." Sobering up, Diana confesses that Sidney does make love "so sweetly" although she would prefer something more aggressive and passionate as reflected in her request for him to "screw" her and for him to keep his eyes open when they kiss. Finally, she begs, "Let it be me tonight!"
In the final piece, the Visitors From Chicago, two couples who are best friends, Stu Franklyn and his wife Gert, and Mort Hollender and his wife Beth, are taking a much-needed vacation together. However, as the trip wears on, they get on each other's nerves and after Beth is hurt during a mixed doubles tennis match, Mort accuses Stu of having caused her injury by lobbing the ball when her shoelaces were untied. The situation spirals downwards from there eventually leading to further injuries and physical violence. Gert breaks a glass on the bathroom floor and hits her head on the medicine cabinet. Mort steps on a piece of glass that breaks through his sneaker. Stu kicks Mort in the balls and then bites him. Mort tells Stu and Gert "to buy two cans of Spaulding balls and then shove them up your respective asses." Beth tries to call a doctor but wants one with a name she likes. She directs Mort to tell the hotel the specialty of the doctor she needs for fear that it being Los Angeles, they might send up a psychiatrist. Gert is a compulsive shopper and even bought a perfume named After Tennis immediately after they played tennis. Stu criticizes Mort for selecting all the restaurants and for suggesting they have a Hong Kong suit made in Honolulu that fell apart in the box. This skit shows you how familiarity sometimes breeds contempt. By the end, Mort is choking Stu on the bed demanding he agree to go on vacation with them again next year. Showing a little foresight, Stu holds out and says "I'm not saying that!"
The thing that surprised me the most about California Suite is how well this play has withstood the test of time. The writing is crisp, the stories are interesting, and the respective characters are well-developed. I can easily understand why this play lasted for over a year on Broadway and was eventually made into a movie. It is quite entertaining! Gary Tifeld is a talented professional actor who excels as Marvin, Sidney & Stu, distinguishing each character's particular personality traits with aplomb. Similarly, Matt Stashin shines in the roles of Billy and Mort. Ginger Dalton is a perfect Diana but, in my opinion, she is mismatched agewise when paired with her counterpart in her other roles. When Marvin opened the door to let Millie into the suite, my first impression was that Millie was old enough to be his mother. Finally, Lesley Wade was perfectly disagreeable as Hannah, but only passable in the role of injured Beth. I give Marian Waller, the director, credit for not re-writing and cleansing Neil Simon's script. Simon's use of the word "faggot" was intended as the essential and necessary culmination of Diana's anger in Visitors From London, and his anti-Muslim "sand-nigger" comment about New York City smelling like Mecca exhibits the casual bias that was deemed socially acceptable forty years ago. Kudos to Ms. Waller for having the guts to stick with the original text.
California Suite is playing through February 26, 2017 at Studio Theatre Long Island. The entertainment value you will receive is far greater than the price of admission, which is $25.00. You can purchase tickets online at www.StudioTheatreLI.com. For more information, call 631-226-8400.