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Hotel Suite — Act II Playhouse

Hotel Suite -- interior Brilliant as Neil Simon is at scene structure and at crafting jokes, he depends on actors to keep his plays on a human scale as opposed to morphing into a glorified sitcom.

Playing only for laughs will make the material seem forced and show the seams in Simon’s writing. Depending on Simon’s gags alone to generate laughs can lead to a dull production. The trick is to find a balance that makes the comic most of Simon’s set-ups while developing believable characters who say funny things because sarcasm and smart answers are part of their being and who know when to show the heart Simon includes in many of his pieces.

Universal kudos then to the cast of “Hotel Suite,” a collection of four Simon sketches, at Ambler’s Act II Playhouse. As directed by Matt Silva, a nimble quartet composed of Tony Braithwaite, Karen Peakes, Tracie Higgins, and Leonard C. Haas find and spin comic gold from all of the humor Simon provides while endowing their several characters with distinct traits and personalities that establish them as authentic. These actors keep the plays about people and earn their laughs honestly by resisting line readings that pander or aim for  comic content alone and by going way beyond easy caricature to portray bona fide humans caught in awkward, tense, or exasperating situations.

Braithwaite is especially adroit at knowing when to keep his characters cool and natural and when to move into higher comic gear while reserving some moments, deftly chosen, for overdrive. Braithwaite sets the tone for the two skits he leads, and the one-acts benefit from his control and ability to grow into a situation as it builds rather than starting from high dudgeon and remaining there.  Braithwaite’s timing and disciplined escalation of reaction or temperament become a master class of comic acting. Line delivery is as precise as Braithwaite’s character creation and physical bits. As a result, Simon is seen as his finest, and “Hotel Suite” plays delightfully from start to finish, all four one-acts having a high degree of merit and all four lead actors being at the top of their game.

“Hotel Suite” is compilation of skits culled from Simon’s three plays about visitors who stay at hotels in New York, Beverly Hills, and London. “Plaza Suite,” “California Suite,” and “London Suite” each had three or four acts that showed tourists or residents having some kind of crisis that threatened to mar their vacation, spoil their marriage, thwart a love fest, compromise a friendship, or put them ill at ease. “Hotel Suite” borrows the best of these one-acts, and Braithwaite, Peakes, Higgins, and Haas prove how worthy they are to be preserved as a unit.

Based on my distant memory of the original productions of the “Suite” plays, the sketch I considered the best of the lot and to which I looked the most forward was the scene from “California Suite” in which a British stage actress is nominated for an Oscar and comes to Hollywood to attend the Academy Award ceremony. Ironically, it played the least naturally and seemed the flimsiest written of the one-acts done at Act II. By contrast, the scene I thought would be the hokiest, one in which a couple from Philadelphia come to L.A. to attend the husband’s nephew’s Bar Mitzvah, turned out to be one of the richest, mainly because of Braithwaite’s invention and Higgins’s following his lead.

The other sketches show the Brits from the Oscar scene reuniting in London and depict the anxiety and tumult when a bride whose father is spending a fortune to give her a wedding at New York’s Plaza, refuses to come out of a locked bathroom to attend her marriage ceremony. This last skit has to go down in the annals as one of the best comic one-acts of all time, and Braithwaite and Higgins extracted every laugh from it without ever becoming hammy or going overboard.

Going back to memories from the ’70s, the scene with the British actress seemed to center on an insecure woman’s angst about competing for an award opposite  better known actresses with more outstanding movie credentials. The actress, Diana Nichols, feels out of place both in Hollywood and at the prospect of attending a glamorous award ceremony. Her career to date has been on the London stage where she has made a name playing the classics. Her movie, “No Left Turn” is a breakthrough, so this first Oscar nomination means something to her. Either Simon’s script or Act II uses the actual Academy Award nominees for Best Actress of 1975 as the candidates, replacing Isabelle Adjani with Nichols and pitting her against Ann-Margret in “Tommy,” Louise Fletcher in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Glenda Jackson in “Hedda,” and Carol Kane in “Hester Street.”  That tells us the outcome Diana faces.

At Act II, the sketch divides into two natural parts, one before the awards, one following the ceremony. In the first part, vanity replaces the memory of angst as Diana prepares to leave for the awards. A series of jokes about a part of her evening gown that looks like a hump backfires because the dress Jill Keys designed for Karen Peakes to wear in the scene  doesn’t seem to have a hideously disfiguring feature of any sort. The “hump,” as Keys perceives it, is a knot in a scarf that rests at the top of Diana’s left shoulder. As worn by Peakes, the accessory looks handsome, so Diana’s complaints are out the window, and Simon’s jokes alluding to the hump go for naught. The offending accoutrement would have to erupt behind Diana, somewhere on her back or near the nape of her neck for the bit to have worked. The audience has to agree the “hump” amounts to a fashion nightmare that will give Joan and Melissa Rivers, were they around at the time, fodder for hours of ridicule. I don’t see that as likely. The knot on the scarf and its placement on the shoulder look fine.

Peakes mostly preens and complains while Haas, as her husband, Sidney attempts to comfort her and tell her that whatever happens, they got an all-expense-paid trip to L.A. and the chance to attend the Oscars as a nominee and her escort. There is talk between Diana and Sidney about the nature of their marriage, but it seems to take a subordinate role to the “hump,” earrings, hairdo, and other parts of Diana’s look.

I fear the cart was put before the horse in this scene. If the relationship between Diana and Sidney is put in the forefront, and remarks about clothing and a Brit not really understanding the Hollywood fuss about glamor kept to a droll whine, the scene takes on some poignance, especially if actors also convey how much Diana and Sidney care for each other in spite of the reason Sidney may not be able to sustain his role on his marriage.

Peakes plays Diana as being more interested in her gown than anything else. Haas keeps Sidney distant and not particularly supportive of Diana or her fears about not measuring up to what’s expected of a Best Actress nominee on Oscar night.

The repartee in the scene shows Simon’s hand more openly than any other segment in “Hotel Suite.” You see the attempts at comedy. It may have been better if Silva conceived the scene as a melodrama with people who say funny things or have a friendly, if bickering, way of talking to each other.

The scene doesn’t quite fall flat, but it seems standard, more like a television sitcom than a theatrical piece.

While Peakes and Haas entertain as best they can, I think each, but especially Peakes, is caught up in the concept that  Diana’s obsession with her dress is more important than what she can hide or avoid saying by paying more attention to her wardrobe than to her relationship, or by not realizing the flaws in her gown might be able to be mended but that the glitches in her relationship may not be.

After the couple return from the Oscars, Diana is too looped from drinking to be able to muster much in the way of meaningful conversation.

The scene is the only misstep in Silva’s production. Peakes and Haas act well in the context of what they’re asked to do, and the basics of the sketch are strong enough to keep “Hotel Suite” from flagging, but I feared the show at Act II might border on the mediocre as crew, dressed as hotel maids, came in to prepare the room for the next skit.

Once that sketch begins, “Hotel Suite” is off to the comic races for the duration.

The second scene, also set in Beverly Hills, involves a couple who has flown separately from L.A. to Philadelphia so their children would not be orphans if something happened to one of their airplanes. The man, played by Braithwaite, arrives a day ahead of his wife and spends the evening going to dinner with his brother whose son is being called to the Torah as a Bar Mitzvah the following afternoon.

The brother also gives his visiting sibling a surprise, a woman to keep him company for the night.

Naturally, things go awry. The woman drinks an entire bottle of vodka, and perhaps some whiskey, and passes out. She remains passed out when Braithwaite’s character wakes in the morning,  minutes before his wife is due to arrive at their suite and mere hours before the Bar Mitzvah.

The sequences in which Braithwaite confronts the corpse-like hooker and tries to get to wake and depart are hilarious. Braithwaite has such control. He is an actor who is not beyond shtick, but here he does none. He is deadpan and agitated in turn, and the combination works. You believe Braithwaite is an ordinary man with an extraordinary dilemma rather than a comic actor with a great bit in his mitts.

The ease with which Braithwaite proceeds makes the scene funnier and makes you feel for this sad sack who probably never cheated with pictures from Playboy but is now faced with having to explain to his wife why another woman is in his bed.

The scene gets better and better as Braithwaite at first tries to dissuade Higgins, as his wife, from entering the bedroom, even when she claims she must use the toilet, which can only be reached through the bedroom.

Higgins rises to the occasion, getting suspicious and noticing her husband is not acting as he usually does, as goofy as that may be.

Admission of the husband’s lapse and discovery of the hooker lead to more laughs. A prop in the bedroom of Roman Tatarowicz’s set gives Braithwaite and Higgins extra fuel when the toggle that holds the coiled wire connecting the receiver to the rest of a telephone dislodges while Braithwaite is using the phone. Braithwaite has a good time improvising with the faulty prop. Higgins does the impossible by topping Braithwaite. She picks up the phone and when she notices the receiver is disengaged, she says, “Nice room you got for us here, Marvin.” Undaunted, she goes ahead with the scripted intentions for the phone. A potential calamity turns into a comic opportunity both performers ace.

What I would have said was the weakest of the Simon skits in “Hotel Suite” turned out to be the strongest, proving that astute acting can make a difference and turn stock material into something funnier and more entertaining than it reads.

Following intermission, Peakes and Haas return as Diana and Sidney in a scene that takes place more than a decade after we meet them in Hollywood.

What a difference a change of tone makes. Rather than playing for comedy, Peakes and Haas opt for sincerity, and their second turn as Diana and Sidney works beautifully. Warmth and poignancy emerge, and you see more clearly how deep the relationship is between this formerly married pair.

Diana has left the London stage and movies and is now the star of wildly successful American television series that has completed its eighth season on the air. She lives in L.A. and has become inured to the California lifestyle she eschewed in the first scene.

Sidney is living in Greece with a man he met when he went to Mykonos on a vacation. Money is an issue. So is health. Sidney, though he is happy to see Diana, needs to appeal to her for help.

Unlike in the first sketch, the dialogue between Peakes and Haas is authentic and touching. Peakes shows her depth as an actress while also demonstrating the growth and confidence Diana has acquired since her night at the Oscars. Haas exudes the relaxed, nonchalant attitude we expect from Sidney. Both characters have mellowed, but more importantly, Silva and his actors have found the right tone and perspective for this piece.

“Hotel Suite” concludes with Simon’s gem about a bride who won’t leave the bathroom on the day of her wedding.

Again, Braithwaite impresses with the way he lets the scene breathe and grow. Higgins also measures her responses as she goes from hysteria to calmness and back as the mother of the bride who knows her husband will accuse her of causing the dilemma their daughter has fomented.

Genius begets genius as Braithwaite and Higgins proceed through one of Simon’s finest pieces. Even physical comedy and gags that call for destroyed furniture or clothing are timed expertly and come off as natural occurrences rather than as slapstick.

The result is a rollicking end to a delightfully satisfying production. “Hotel Suite” was never in danger, not even in the dodgy first scene about Oscar night, but once the show gets its footing, the quality of the acting and Silva’s approach to the sketches snowballs. Braithwaite, Higgins, Peakes and Haas illuminate Simon’s material and improve upon it with their smart, sincere performances. They are abetted by Janet McWilliams who doesn’t give an inch as the soused woman Braithwaite is desperate to hide and who has a nice turn as Diana’s assistant in the bit when Diana and Sidney see each other again.

On opening night, Braithwaite recruited one of his students from St. Joseph’s Prep, Brendan McHale, for a small but crucial role. The handsome lad made a great impression and did a fine job. What a great way for young actors to get their first experience on a professional stage!

Roman Tatarowicz has designed a beautiful and functional set for “Hotel Suite.” It resembles standard rooms in hotels, pictures and all while suggesting the elegance of the quarters the guests would book for themselves. Jill Keys’s costumes are, with the exception of Diana’s Oscar dress, on the mark. I especially liked the overdone hat Higgins wears as the mother of the bride in the closing sketch and the casual clothes Haas wears so fittingly in the Diana-Sidney reunion scene.

“Hotel Suite” runs through Sunday,  March 23 at Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Avenue, in Ambler, Pa. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Matinees are scheduled for 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Feb. 26  and March 3 and for Saturday, March 15. Tickets range from $34 to $23 and can be obtained by calling 215-654-0200 or going online to www.act2.org.

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