There's something almost radical in 2022 about seeing a Neil Simon comedy staged like a Neil Simon Comedy. Everything about Plaza Suite at the Hudson Theatre, with its gold-trimmed set, modish costumes, bright lighting, and married celebrity actors (Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick) having a ball feels like a throwback to a different theatrical era. Glamorous, chic, gilded — it's no wonder why John Benjamin Hickey's new production was one of the highest-grossing shows last week, and, for my money, it's the unabashed delight of a relatively grim season.
In Simon's triptych of playlets, Parker and Broderick, working together onstage for the first time since How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in the '90s, star as three sets of couples occupying the same room at the Plaza Hotel, circa 1968-69. Visitor From Mamaroneck, the curtain-raiser, casts them as Karen and Sam, a couple celebrating their anniversary (or are they?) when a painful secret comes to light that could spell the end of their relationship. Broderick plays famous movie producer Jesse in Visitor From Hollywood, who has returned to the East Coast to sign a big star for his latest picture, and potentially rekindle his high school romance with Muriel (Parker), now an unsatisfied suburban mom in their native Tenafly, New Jersey. And finally, they're Norma and Roy, parents of a bride who has locked herself in the bathroom right before the "I do's," in Visitor From Forest Hills.
It's no reflection of the production to say that Forest Hills is the highlight of the evening; that has always been the case with Plaza Suite, for me, anyway. Simon, an expert at comedic construct and the building blocks of laughs, saved the best for last. It's a farce, plain and simple, as Norma and Roy try to cajole their daughter Mimsy (Molly Ranson) out of the bathroom any way they can, even if it means climbing out onto the ledge and getting attacked by pigeons in a thunderstorm. It's notthat the first two acts are bad (Hollywood is slight and silly, but Mamaroneck contains the Simonesque punch of emotion that we often forget to associate with his work), it's that they just don't hold a candle to the third.
Hickey's designers give Broderick and Parker a glitzy playground. John Lee Beatty's set is the hotel room of everyone's dreams, fit for royalty with a great view of Central Park that you can see in your mind's eye, if not directly from the stage. It's a testament to the transformative work of costume designer Jane Greenwood and wig designer Tom Watson that Parker receives collective gasps and entrance applause in the second act, despite her having been onstage for a full hour already, simply for looking the most like herself. The sunny lighting by Brian MacDevitt, the jaunty underscoring by Marc Shaiman — the whole thing just feels rich and fabulous.
To their credit, Broderick and Parker go way harder than they need to, and audiences specifically going for them (which, let's face it, they are) won't be left disappointed. All three pieces happen to be great vehicles for Parker, who creates a trio of expert and unique characterizations that allow us to see much more of her dramatic range than is usually on display (though anybody who remembers the aftermath of the Post-it breakup will know it's always been there). Mamaroneck is her play, and as the middle-aged housewife who suspects that her marriage is about to crumble, Parker really tugs at our heartstrings and receives a hearty dose of applause for her delivery of one particularly acidic Simon zinger.
Broderick, a longtime Simon veteran who famously runs hot or cold onstage, is a little shaky to start out but really steals the show in Forest Hills. Simultaneously channeling the goofy gruffness of Walter Matthau from the 1971 film while bringing his own, completely unusual eccentricities, his farcical shtick is a comic delight, particularly as he fends off birds outside the hotel room window. When the part is right for him, Broderick really excels, and this one fits him like a glove. No small thanks go to Hickey, who, in his directorial debut, has managed to coax better work out of him than the likes of Daniel Sullivan, Jack O'Brien, Joe Mantello, and Kathleen Marshall, though they all valiantly tried.
I'm sure it's also due to his playing opposite his wife, and the pressure they both must feel to deliver for each other. And in this evening of work about marital strife and late-60s sexual politics ("they're both sexually harassing each other in the second act and everyone is laughing," the young woman behind me harrumphed loudly about something that used to be known as a prolonged flirtation), there's no better way to show your devotion to your spouse than to have their back onstage as they go full tilt off the deep end. Parker and Broderick do that, and then some. You can see how much fun they're having, and that sense of enjoyment extends across the footlights.