John Ritter, Henry Winkler, and Len Cariouin Neil Simon's The Dinner Party
John Ritter, Henry Winkler, and Len Cariou
in Neil Simon's The Dinner Party
Neil Simon continues to wrangle with the meaning of love and marriage, finding parts of himself and his many wives in the six characters who comprise his latest play, The Dinner Party. Simon has previously tried to come to terms with his love life in plays like Jake's Women and movies like Chapter Two, but the battle of the sexes continues in The Dinner Party at The Music Box. Now, however, the fight seems more intellectual than emotional.

There is a sense of distance in this work that isn't the norm for Simon. His Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound are all warmly told and emotionally engaging, while The Dinner Party is not. There is one way, though, in which the play is similar to all of the author's past work: it's loaded with sure-fire one-liners. The ability to make people laugh consistently over a period of 40 years is a gift not to be taken lightly, and Simon's talent for comedy should not be dismissed, even if this play is somewhat flawed.

The Dinner Party begins with the apperance of two confused men, Albert (Henry Winkler) and Claude (John Ritter). They question each other and try to guess why they've been invited to the swank Parisian restaurant in which they find themselves. Their dialogue fizzes with funny lines and off-the-wall nuttiness. In particular, Winkler's character is a wonderful creation: He's a used car magnate who also paints in his free time. That is, he paints cars. When he paints people, they are always inside of a car.

A third fellow soon enters, the smug and acerbic Andre (Len Cariou). He has little patience with the other two men, but he does have a glimmer of an idea as to what's going on. Jan Maxwell, Veanne Cox, and Penny Fuller soon appear in the roles of the men's former wives, and that's is when the more serious side of the play begins to show.

Simon apparently chose to set The Dinner Party in France to suggest a French farce; but no one here affects a French accent, thank God, and the farcical elements of the piece are modest at best. More to the point, Simon might have picked this locale in order to allow for a more "foreign" (or, should we say, "unrealistic") plot and characters that speak in a style we would never accept from Americans. The plot revolves around a highly unlikely setup in which one of the six characters has invited the other five for a reason that is laughably flimsy (and this is not one of Simon's intended laughs). As for the dialogue, Cariou's Andre has some lines that would make William F. Buckley proud, while some of Fuller's speeches--though very well delivered--sound unnatural.

Simon is at his best when writing characters that are flawed and confused, which is why the other four characters in in The Dinner Party are far more appealing and effective than those played by Cariou and Fuller. Again, it is Winkler who stands out, giving a whimsical yet heartfelt performance as a rather dim bulb. You may think "It's the Fonz!" (from Happy Days) when you first see and hear him, but that feeling disappears almost immediately; Winkler gives himself totally to the part. Veanne Cox may be actorish here, but she stills gets her share of laughs, as does Ritter. Jan Maxwell, as one of play's more comples characters, strikes a neat balance between humor and heartbreak.

The story Simon tells in The Dinner Party is far too arch; but he's taking a risk, giving us something bold and ambitious. If it doesn't always work, he never forgets to entertain us along the way.