Glenda Frank in New York
7 April 2022
Has Sarah Jessica Parker been miscast all these years? Yes, she was charming and sassy in Sex in the City, but I never expected her brilliance as a comedienne, a skill much on display in the revival of Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite at the Hudson Theatre.
Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus.
The power of her physical reactions reminded me of Lucille Ball whose grimaces often outshone the script. And that is precisely the problem with this production. In 1968 this comedy of three distinct couples suffering from upper-middle-class woes ran over three years on Broadway, but it was a creature of its time with frenetic action and skit-like plots. Every once in a while this revival resonates with contemporary life, but the sparks of relevance are short lived. It was up to the stars to hold high the roofbeams.
Parker is coupled with Matthew Broderick, her real-life husband of over 20 years, in all three of the one-acts. Their presence becomes the imagined fourth couple and the major draw that adds metadrama to each of the one-acts. Broderick is stolid as a performer with far less range in physical or spoken comedy, and director John Benjamin Hickey (Tony nomination for The Inheritance) did not seem interested in finding depth and nuance in these characters. But in the last of the three one-acts, Broderick allowed his inner clown to shine, and the audience (much relieved) laughed hard at his every attempt to meet Parker’s zaniness.
All the plays are set in room 719 of the Plaza Hotel during different seasons. “Visitor from Mamaroneck,” the first one-act, is the most interesting although the portrait of Karen Nash was a sexist stereotype. She rented Room 719 to celebrate the couple’s twenty-fourth wedding anniversary. Parker, in a brown wig, is nervous but we don’t know why, and we don’t quite trust that a revelation is coming. But it is. She seems savvy, ordering the same hors d’oeuvres the couple enjoyed on their honeymoon and warning us, the audience, that although she has been very very specific to room service, the canapes will have more than their share of anchovies. And indeed, there are anchovies.
It’s a predictable joke, and there are many other tired routines. Karen is in the process of removing her galoshes (galoshes!) when the doorbell rings, so she fumbles around the room with one galosh off and one on. We laugh. Parker’s goodhearted attempts are welcome and invite us to appreciate her unscripted additions in depicting the character.
Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus.
Sam Nash (Broderick) arrives preoccupied with business troubles. There is little subtext to hint at the reveal. The actor remains totally reliant on the lines. And then he begins a mild-mannered attack on her. She becomes a ditsy brunette, a stereotype that dates the play. Karen claims she is 49, but she is 48, and he tells her if she is going to get it wrong, she should count down to 42. It is not their twenty-fourth anniversary, and the honeymoon suite was one floor up. She doesn’t deflate or rage back. Then his gorgeous young secretary (Molly Ranson) arrives to bring him back to the office – without subtext. We know what’s going on, but we don’t feel it and we’re not laughing.
Parker’s performance saves “Visitors from Mamaroneck,” and Karen saves the day. She’s feisty and while still the subservient wife, she calls him out as vain and self-involved. She demands that he does not leave. I wish she had let loose and broken things. It would have given Sam Nash/Broderick a wonderful porthole into comic reaction.
Sarah Jessica Parker. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.
Hickey missed other opportunities. In “Visitor from Hollywood,” the second one-act, a famous producer has invited his high school sweetheart to the Plaza. Married with three children, she has followed his career religiously, but this is her first time alone with him. He tells her she smells wonderful. She says she is not there to be smelled. The subtext screams, but not on the stage. He asks her to remove her gloves. There was not a wink-wink between them. But Parker brought it home, deliciously lying about why she had to leave, where she was parked, anything that made this scene of seduction a joy. When she asks for a vodka stinger and confesses that she had two drinks at the bar earlier, we know this is consensual foreplay.
“Visitors from Forest Hills,” the last one-act, is Broderick’s triumph. The Hubley daughter (Molly Ranson) has locked herself in the bathroom and refuses to get married. Her mom (Parker) begs, threatens, fusses and fumes and then calls her husband. He mirrors the mother’s failed attempts but with a comic twist – a strange foot kick, his hair billowing out like Harpo Marx’s, a lament for the money spent, as well as vocal and physical comic innovations. When he finally climbs out on the window ledge (to jump we wonder) and is attacked by pigeons and drenched in a sudden rainstorm, Broderick has our full attention. I wish Parker had more to do, but the comedy works. It ends when the couple telephone their perhaps future son-in-law (Eric Wiegand) about the situation. He arrives, says two words, and the scene ends.
Despite the many problems – such as awkward blocking because of the cumbersome set – Plaza Suite provides a time to relax and laugh. The lighting by Brian McDevitt, stunning costumes by Jane Greenwood and the opulent suite décor are a joy to behold.