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Opening night of Forest Moon Theater's California Suite was a sellout production; those of us who arrived too close to curtain were relegated to the back of the hall. In any other theater, this wouldn't be a problem, but at the Renaissance Center in Wake Forest there is no raked auditorium. I spent the evening trying to crane my neck in order to see around the particularly tall folks seated directly in front of me. When you go, be sure to get a seat near the front of the house, so this problem doesn't arise for you.
California Suite is comprised of four vignettes, each with its own cast, depicting comic situations that have some serious overtones. They all take place in the same suite of two rooms in a hotel in Beverly Hills over a two-year period in the mid 1970s. Music from Kasey Kasom and his top-forty lineup placed us firmly in that timeline. With the exception of "Visitors from London," which had two scenes, all were one-scene skits running about thirty minutes each.
The "Visitor from New York" is Hannah Warren, portrayed here by Sarah Richardson. Hannah has come to meet with her ex of nine years, Bill (Mike McGee), about their 17-year-old daughter, Jenny. Jenny spends the summers with her dad for two months out of the year, but this year she has decided she doesn't want to come home. Hannah has arrived firm in the conviction that she will return to New York with her daughter, come what may. It is Bill's job to convince her otherwise.
This scene was well done as far as the tension existing between these two old sparring partners, but I found myself wishing the tempo was faster. Hannah is a no-nonsense New Yorker; the pressure should have been on Bill, and we should have felt it. We didn't. Also, the first of the technical gaffes that resulted from first-night jitters came early in this scene: when Hannah picked up the telephone, it should have stopped ringing. These kinds of little faux pas plagued the show throughout. Bill – everyone out here calls him Billy – is now a typical laid-back Californian, and plays it well. It makes Hannah wonder if Bill is ready for being a full-time dad. All the other aspects of this scene were there; if the tempo had been faster, this would have been a fine opening number.
Scene Two brings us the "Visitor from Philadelphia," Marvin (Danny Mullins), who wakes up too late on the morning of his wife's arrival, to find that the hooker who was a gift from his brother the night before (Karen Marchuska) is still in his bed this morning. The problem is intensified by the fact that she is dead drunk and nearly comatose, making it impossible to remove her from the scene before Millie (Ashley Rebecca Jones) appears. This is Marvin's first-ever transgression and he is terrified. No miracle appears to save him, and when Millie finds out, Marv's fate is firmly in her hands.
Mullins was really on top of his game here, from the terror he feels at discovery, to the abject soul he becomes as he awaits his fate. And Jones was perfect in her timing, making sure that her cheatin' husband felt every second of agony as he waited for her decision. Of the four, this vignette was by far the best, with excellent portrayals all around and finely tuned pacing.
Actor/director Lisa Binion steers this show for the most part, but for the first vignette of Act II, she called on a friend from Raleigh who is no newcomer to show biz. Bunny Saffron directs the "Visitors from London," as a fading actress and her husband come to Los Angeles to learn her fate at the Oscars. Diana Nichols is played by Binion, thus requiring Saffron's guiding hand. Her husband, Sidney (Tom Barbieri), has been with her for twelve years; he's an antiques dealer, but he is also used to the ups and downs of his wife's not-so-meteoric rise to the top. Now that they are here, Diana's anxiety combined with Sydney's ennui are driving them both to drink. Sydney is well on his way before they leave for the show, but by the time they return, Diana has caught up with him. It's 3:00 am, and they are both royally snookered.
This vignette is a bit more subtle than the other three; the outcome of the Oscars is not what's going on here. As the evening's festivities are hashed out between them, the real issue finally comes to light. During the course of the evening, Sydney has met and propositioned a young man and invited him to meet up with Sydney next week in London. It is possible that this is the last straw for Diana; she has put up with this from Sydney from the beginning.
I was impressed here with the fact that the English accents demanded of these two never wavered, even through drunkenness. Binion played Diana's vulnerability superbly, and meshed it nicely with Sydney's implacability. Barbieri, who must be smashed the entire scene, nevertheless made every word clear and every emotion clean. Nicely done.
We close out the evening with the "Visitors from Chicago," two couples who are best friends, who have come here for a dream dual vacation. Mort (Bill Segreve) enters the suite with his wife, Beth (Dara Lyon Warner), limping in while clinging to him; the two couples were playing tennis, and she might have broken her foot. Stu (Steve Migdon) and his wife, Gert (Lisa Merritt), arrive shortly thereafter, and the fur begins to fly. The two couples have been together nonstop for two weeks now, and idiosyncrasies that never came up between them before are now rearing their ugly heads.
This one is a fast-and-loose fisticuffs brawl designed to end the show on a funny high note. The problem was that no one was laughing. I cannot fault the actors for this because they all did their jobs well; the gals were sensible but also the victims of painful accidents, while the guys were fine specimens of overly-testosteroned fury. I know this scene was written to be funny. Can it be that the funny bone of the 21st century patron is not the same as that of the 1970s? I wonder. Having never been a fan of slapstick myself, I can still appreciate the abilities of those who can perform it. But this audience wasn't having it. It was a very hard arrangement for an actor to plow through, and these four plowed on undeterred until the bitter end. Their performance deserved better.
California Suite, when it was written, was set in the present. The play, and the shtick, is almost a half-century old now. Is it maybe time for the old show to retire?
California Suite continues through Sunday, September 24. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.