Summer theater has East Coast bias

Jonas Grushkin/Courtesy of Durango Arts Center

Erin O’Connor and Jacqueline LaFortune provide the “voices” inside the head of Sonia (Bailey Elizabeth Sande) as she sings with Vern (Ben Mattson) in a scene from “They’re Playing Our Song” at the Durango Arts Center.

By Judith Reynolds
Special to the Herald

When a parent threatens to count to three, a stubborn child already has won.

When actor Geoff Johnson counts to three in Neil Simon’s “Plaza Suite,” expect comic combustion.

Johnson portrays Roy Hubley, the manic father of Mimsey (Tiffany Silva), a reluctant bride, in the Durango Arts Center’s production of the Simon classic. “Plaza Suite” runs Fridays throughout the summer between performances of the Simon-Hamlisch musical “They’re Playing Our Song.”

Every Friday, DAC’s stage will be transformed into Suite 719 at New York’s swanky Plaza Hotel. Designed by John Mark Zink, the spacious cream-and-maroon room sets the stage for all three acts. It’s an old concept – one location for different stories – and, in the playwright’s hands, a platform for tangled human relationships.

In Act I, long marrieds Sam and Karen Nash (Stephen Bowers and Donna Dominick) more or less celebrate their 28th or 29th anniversary. In Act II, Hollywood film producer Jesse Kiplinger (Ted Holteen, The Durango Herald’s Arts & Entertainment editor) tries to seduce his former high school sweetheart Muriel Tate (Tiffany Silva). And in Act III, the Hubleys (Johnson and Sarah Syverson, alternating with Jessica Fairchild) struggle to get their reluctant daughter out of the bathroom and down to her ballroom wedding.

When “Plaza Suite” opened on Broadway in 1968, it was an immediate hit. Two years later, the film version came out starring Walter Matthau in each of the three acts. The playwright’s comedic tempo starts quietly and develops in crescendos of revelation. Be patient with the script; the comedy meanders toward a full-out, foot-on-the-pedal third-act farce.

Director Theresa Carson understands Simon’s overall rhythm and lets each act unfold naturally. Revelations and twists come toward the end of each act. Carson also has opted for a larger cast and introduces a few new faces to Durango audiences.

In the relatively subdued Act I, Bowers and Dominick acquit themselves ably but could use more energy and focused interaction throughout. Holteen and Silva weave Act II into a funny, start-stop seduction. The contrast between a slick, determined pursuit and nervous uncertainty is full of wonderful reversals. Johnson and Syverson go for broke in Act III as the frustrated parents of a spoiled bride. Deservedly, the finale has won fame on its own. Carson and her cast should be proud of themselves for meeting the playwright’s rising manic intentions.

In contrast, “They’re Playing Our Song” begins on a platform fairly high in energy, rises and falls, and finally settles into a quieter conclusion.

At the beginning, Sonia Walsk simply knocks on Vernon Gersch’s apartment door. She’s a determined, young lyricist, and he’s an established Manhattan pop music composer. Based loosely on a real-life creative team of Marvin Hamlisch and Carol Bayer Sager, with whom Simon collaborated to write the musical, the pair decides to team up and soon find themselves juggling work and romance.

Originally, the 1978 musical opened in Los Angeles then went to Broadway with Robert Klein and Lucie Arnaz as Vernon and Sonia, winning a Tony for Arnaz.

Carson has made several smart choices beginning with casting. Ben Mattson, originally from Minnesota, winningly portrays a seasoned songwriter who is dazzled by Sonia’s effervescence but bewildered by her lingering attachments. Sparkly newcomer Bailey Elizabeth Sande is originally from Colorado by way of California and the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts. She plays Sonia with a chirpy high energy and wit.

To add zest to this romantic sparring match, Simon added more characters, Leon, Sonia’s ex-boyfriend, who never appears, and two alter egos for Vernon and Sonia, portrayed by Jacqueline LaFortune and Erin O’Connor, Charles Eagan and Adam Sowards. They appear at regular intervals as a mini Greek chorus.

The story moves toward a satisfying, if slightly bittersweet, conclusion. You’ll recognize the Hamlisch musical touch, especially in the up-tempo title song.

Last week, at final dress rehearsal, the sound system seemed to be in overdrive. It probably has been adjusted by now, but singers don’t need to push, especially in their lower registers. It’s a small theater. Mattson’s beautiful baritone easily finds a warm center; Sande’s range is most appealing floating into her high notes.

The reliable Ivy Walker accompanies on piano, helped along seamlessly by Mattson on his studio piano to add verity to his role.

Technical Director Zink has created a set of stage pictures that suit the work perfectly. Choreographer Judy Austin works her own magic on the small stage, especially with a full cast. Costumer Ginny Davis delivers a retro look spiced comically with Sonja’s various Broadway costumes.

Trivia note: On July 4, the playwright turned 86. Neil Simon has more Oscar and Tony nominations than any other American author. Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic.

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