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Roula Khalaf, editor-in-chief of the FT, selects her favorite stories in this weekly newsletter.
As Sarah Jessica Parker pulls a tight black nightgown from a suitcase and places it longingly on the hotel bed, a murmur of anticipation runs through the audience. It is, after all, Sex and the cityis Carrie Bradshaw, although playing Karen, a 1960s housewife determined to restart her marriage.
But she – and the audience – are doomed to disappointment. For Karen has chosen to celebrate her wedding anniversary in Suite 719 of Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel: a room where marriages, in Neil Simon’s triptych of short comic scenarios from 1968, wither and die on the soft carpet.
When Sam arrives (played by Parker’s real-life husband, Matthew Broderick), he is far too preoccupied with his job, his weight, and the whiteness of his teeth to notice Karen’s seductive efforts. “I didn’t think you’d need your pajamas,” she said hopefully. “I can’t sleep without my pajamas on,” he retorts before returning to study his profile in one of the room’s gilded mirrors (the decor by John Lee Beatty is a masterpiece of reassuring opulence and fatal). The arrival of her secretary, who drinks black coffee with sweetener while Karen regularly prepares the hors d’oeuvres, tells us all we need to know.
Sam and Karen are the first of three couples to occupy the room, each in turn facing disillusionment. The second act sees a bloated Hollywood producer and a bored New Jersey housewife attempt an awkward date with their past as childhood sweethearts, while the third act devolves into frenzied farce, as a couple d middle-aged man tries to persuade their daughter to come out of the bathroom. and attend his own (expensive) wedding several floors below.
The main appeal of John Benjamin Hickey’s production is the obvious bond between Parker and Broderick as they play out multiple variations of marital misery. Parker, in particular, is a joy, bringing pizzazz, sharp detail, and precise comic timing to his characters. But that is not enough to dust off the play and its grating representation of the sexes. More than 50 years later, the comedy has aged; each act, while short, feels overextended, while the scenes never truly explore the loneliness and pain that can lurk beneath the comedy.
And this, despite the work of Parker, who finds a certain depth in Simon’s fragile female characters. In the first act, she brings increasing levels of desperation to Karen’s brilliance and clever one-liners until she becomes quite desolate at the end. Broderick is less fortunate, playing a stuffed shirt, stuffed ego and just plain stuffy, and delivering them all stiffly – although act three allows both actors to let loose with extensive physical comedy.
The most difficult section to animate is the second. Although Parker gives his character a definite edge beneath the demure exterior, it’s hard to laugh at the nauseating spectacle of a film producer and a woman in a hotel room. It’s Neil Simon: there are zingers and classic bits of funny business. But old isn’t always gold.
As of April 13, plazasuiteuk.com