The Dinner Party

Reviewed by Karl Levett

Presented by Emanuel Azenberg, Ira Pittelman, Eric Krebs, Scott Nederlander,, Center Theatre Group, Mark Taper Forum, and Gordon Davidson at the Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45 St., NYC. Opened Oct. 19 for an open run.

At Neil Simon's "The Dinner Party," sadness and missed opportunities are being served up as the main dishes. The play—and eventually the meal—is presented in a private room of a high-style Parisian restaurant, where the invited guests arrive one by one, ostensibly assembled by their common divorce lawyer. A trio of divorced men arrive first: rare book dealer Claude Pichon (John Ritter), used car dealer Albert Donay (Henry Winkler), and clothing store magnate André Bouville (Len Cariou). As they try to uncover the mystery of the dinner party, Simon paces these pre-prandial pranks with considerable expertise, drawing laughs from seemingly ordinary material. (The appetizers at this meal are quite the best course.) With the arrival of the three women, lovely Mariette (Jan Maxwell), neurotic Yvonne (Veanne Cox), and worldly Gabrielle (Penny Fuller), the intermissionless evening becomes a rueful examination of love, marriage, and divorce.

The play's faulty structuring includes giving each couple a scene to delineate their marriage. Simon's lack of success here is in direct proportion with his sincere attempt to deal seriously with these themes of loss. So the power games of André and Gabrielle seem soap-operatically unconvincing, while the simpler comedic coupling of Albert and Yvonne is much more believable. It becomes evident that Simon has no language to convey the serious pronouncements of love—some of the self-conscious statements sound like warmed-over song lyrics. When, as a coda, Gabrielle plays a final game, the questions she asks might have come from Barbara Walters' lachrymose pad. It's the final unraveling of what began so promisingly.

John Rando crisply directs his stylish, all-star cast, who wring everything possible from the given text. Unsurprisingly, Simon's laugh-getters, Winkler's nebbish Albert and Cox's loopy Yvonne, are also the most endearing characters. Something absolutely right: Jane Greenwood's deliciously appropriate costumes for the three women.