Sweet Home California


There’s a reason Neil Simon may be the only American playwright to have had four of his plays run simultaneously on Broadway—the guy’s good.  Pulitzer Prize-good.

There’s something very genuine, American and just plain “real” about a Neil Simon play. If you like witty banter, if you enjoy a bittersweet smile at human foibles exposed on stage, Neil Simon is for you.

So when a local theater like Baltimore’s Vagabond Players puts on a production of Neil Simon’s “California Suite,” unless the actors are emotionless zombies (think John Kerry if you’re a Democrat, Mitt Romney if you’re a Republican) and the director’s resume teems with used car commercials, you know the odds are good for a night of top-flight entertainment.

And the Vagabond delivers. First, I was astounded to learn that conducting the action on stage was arguably America’s great film director, John Ford…kidding, that John Ford passed away in 1973. This Ford, one John W. Ford, is no novice to Simon, having previously directEd Simon’s “London Suite,” as well as many other works, including “Light Up the Sky,” “Christmas Belles, “ “Noises Off, and “Murder on the Nile.”

Mr. Ford does a remarkable job in casting and staging this 2-act, 2+ hour play which is really four plays in one—couples from New York, Philadelphia, London and Chicago who provide the audience with insights into their turbulent lives, all from the same hotel room, No. 203 in Los Angeles, hence the title, “California Suite.”

We open with the couple from New York, Hannah and Billy, played by real-life husband and wife, Michele Jenkins Guyton and Greg Guyton. Both are well cast, Jenkins Guyton as the West-Coast-hating New Yorker, all intellectual-snob-and-iron-lady on the outside, though somewhat softer on the inside.  Mr. Guyton has the right “boyish” looks for a middle-aged man named “Billy,” who has to take a temporary detour from his tea-drinking, rock-climbing "sanity" to tread his ex-wife’s “trail of venom” as the two debate their teenage daughter’s future.

If “New York” is drama dipped in comedy, “Philadelphia” is comedy with a pinch of drama as Marvin (Marc Harber) finds himself hiding a comatose hooker from his wife, Millie (Barbara Pinker), as both in town for a Bar Mitzvah. Harber is a kind of human "weeble," a somewhat spherical middle-aged man who rolls about the room sweating profusely as he fathoms ways to keep his wife from literally uncovering Bunny (Polly Hurlburt) in his bed.

What makes Neil Simon’s plays so engaging is their ability to stretch one’s credulity to the breaking point, but never quite breaking.  Yes, the scenario in “Philadelphia” is vaudevillesque, slapstick, but there are truths here that cannot be denied, truths both physical (you can’t hide a human being from another in a closed space) and emotional (the sacrifices we make for love).

Speaking of physical and emotional truths, these are apparent at the start of Act II as Diana (Hillary Mazer), an English actress somewhere in age between Angelina Jolie and Dame Judi Dench, has come to Los Angeles for the Oscars, along with her husband, Sidney (Michael P. Sullivan), who reminded me of a young Edward Hermann.

Both actors are convincing with their British accents as Diana complains her dress has given her a hump a la Richard III while Sidney, once an actor himself, has embraced his new career as an antiques dealer. When Diana asks if Sidney would vote for her for the Oscar, he replies, “My dear, I’m an antique dealer. When you’re an antique, I’ll vote for you.”

For this couple, there are both physical (in this case, sexual) and emotional barriers that both bring them together and, ironically, keep them apart.  In the play's last scene, “Chicago,” best-friend couples Mort (Michael Panzarotto) and Beth (Karin Crighton) ,and Gert (Polly Hurlburt) and Stu (Blaise D’Ambrosio), are constantly together, rolling all over the couch, floor, bedroom and bathroom, as they take swings at each other, both literal and metaphorical, as they deal with broKen Bones, cut hands and fingers, and painful truths revealed…like the fact some people are not meant to take vacations together.

For those who fear Simon’s 1978 comedy might come across as dated, there are attempts to bring things into the 21st century with references to Justine Bieber , Dakota Fanning, and “The Hurt Locker.”

Kudos to costume designer Victoria Halperin Kuhns who helped Ms. Mazer look like “Titanic in chiffon” and properly suited Mr. Harber in clothes that screamed middle-class tourist. And a shout-out to director John Ford who doubled as set designer (and to set consultant, Tony Colavito, just off his successful 5-week run as “Hickey” in the Fells Point Theater production of “The Iceman Cometh”—that’s the thing about community theater, everyone wears so many hats!)  in making the Vagabond stage look thoroughly believable as a modern 2-room hotel suite.

Finally, I couldn’t help but smile as I noted the stage crew, making prop changes between scenes and acts, were attired as in the gray, buttoned tunics so often worn by hotel personnel. Nice touch!

“California Suite” continues its run at the Vagabond, 806 South Broadway in Fells Point, now through March 25th.  For more information, call 410-563-9135 or visit www.vagabondplayers.org.




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From This Author Daniel Collins

Daniel Collins A communications professional for 25 years, Dan Collins was a theater critic for The Baltimore Examiner daily newspaper (2006-2009), covering plays throughout the Baltimore-Columbia area (read more...)

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