“Plaza Suite” practically demands to be played straight.
Neil Simon’s look at three romantic couples facing down the passage of time is sharp and knowing, but it is, crucially, earnest. Each character gives direct and explicit voice to what’s on their mind; relationship dynamics are explored with an openness of heart that isn’t remotely trying to be cool or distanced. While the emotional truths of this play’s trio of vignettes, all set in a single apartment within the “Plaza Hotel,” can still resonate, the particulars would be impossible to make current without wrecking the whole enterprise.
So thank goodness for Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick — the two contemporary stars perhaps most apt for an exercise in squareness. To call their work in the new Broadway revival of “Plaza Suite” at the Hudson Theatre “diligent” is to suggest a leaden night out. But the real-life married couple bring a serious commitment to the spirit of the work, allowing their own personas to throw some metatextual sparks without overtaking the spirit of Simon. As directed by John Benjamin Hickey, Parker and Broderick provoke, alienate and woo one another, and provide a strong argument for a playwright whose work seems next-to-impossible to subvert.
The two stars’ real-life connection adds extra dimension to “Plaza Suite’s” central concern — the passage of time. Over the course of three one-acts all set in the late 1960s, Parker and Broderick play, in order, a married couple who have grown apart, high-school sweethearts who reconnect years after graduation, and a married couple who have grown apart. The nature of the separations at either end of the play differ in degree (one is melancholy, the other fractious); in between, there’s the pleasure and disorientation of seeing a memory from one’s past in the flesh again.
In the first part, Parker’s Karen is attempting to celebrate an anniversary with her increasingly distant husband Sam (Broderick, of course), having made a special effort to book the suite in which the pair spent their honeymoon. The pair go on to play Muriel, a suburban housewife who’s starry-eyed over the success of her old boyfriend Jesse, now a movie producer, as well as Norma and Roy, a married couple attempting to salvage their daughter’s wedding day even as she won’t cooperate. We move from outright sorrowful to farcical to a mixture of the two — Norma and Roy have tough things to learn about why their daughter feels the way she does about marriage, and do so through moments of sublime physical comedy. Indeed, a part of the suite’s floor seems waxed to an ice-rink smoothness, so effortlessly do Parker and Broderick both, at various points, slide across it.
There’s a literal-mindedness to the production that grounds its eventual flights of fancy. The set, designed by John Lee Beatty, is a faithful recreation of midcentury glamour as expressed through tasseled lampshades and crystal light fixtures. It’s fustily gorgeous, realistically upscale in a way that can alternately seem like an indulgent treat or like a well-upholstered prison cell. Jane Greenwood’s costumes are similarly era-appropriate, with one attention-getting hat worn by Parker in the third act splitting the difference between realism and farce.
And even as he sends his stars to emotional (and physical) extremes, Hickey keeps them grounded in the characters’ reality. Broderick, for instance, in both marriage-themed sections plays characters who struggle to express their emotions, or even to understand them; one never senses Broderick’s own innate intelligence as a performer getting him ahead of where his character is meant to be. The three pieces vary in tone, but throughout, the two stars share not merely an unmistakable chemistry but a shared willingness to dig into the work on its own terms. They almost entirely resist looking at “Plaza Suite” through a 2022 lens.
That “almost” is crucial. While neither performer ever winks at the audience, the play’s second act features Parker playing a character who’s all too aware that her old flame is wooing her but can’t admit it for propriety’s sake; Parker plays this with a shrewd awareness of just how silly self-delusion can look. (This segment of the play, with Parker’s gift for ego-puncturing humor, will likely be the most satisfying for ticket buyers who came to see Parker in Carrie Bradshaw mode.)
In the show’s two vignettes about married couples, though, the comedy tends to emanate from the ways husbands and wives speak to each other, then and (perhaps) now. The thrill we get from the particular husband and particular wife being these two performers helps buoy moments when the misunderstandings can feel rote, or the scaffolding of the first and third act’s arguments, building to one big reveal, can feel too visible.
The mere fact that this play is a hard needle to thread — that Parker and Broderick stand out among 21st century stars in their ability to conjure the Neil Simon sensibility, with truisms wrapped up in semi-corny patter to which an actor must commit fully or not at all — partly accounts for why “Plaza Suite” hasn’t been more frequently revived. Another is that the work itself is uneven, with certain revelations coming long after the audience has gotten there and with both actors occasionally selling material that isn’t quite clicking. (The physical comedy in the third act is indeed remarkable. It also comes to feel a bit too load-bearing in a scene with too little else going on.)
As a reclamation project for a playwright who, a generation ago, was a defining voice in the American theater, “Plaza Suite” has mixed results; it’s perhaps challenging news for the Simon legacy that this production, about as successful as one could hope for, makes it over the line by embracing its identity as a period piece. But as a double act for two talented performers with whom the audience has a long and deep relationship, “Plaza Suite” can hardly have been better chosen. The show itself is somewhat lost in time. But Parker and Broderick’s chemistry, expertly honed, makes it feel timeless.
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