Review: In ‘Plaza Suite,’ the Ghosts of #MeToo Haunt the Halls

The first thing you see when the curtain goes up on “Plaza Suite” is an aquatint image of that grand hotel in its antique glory. But when it comes to datedness, the faux-French pile that opened its doors in 1907 has nothing on the Neil Simon comedy — itself a faux-French pile — that debuted on Broadway in 1968. Despite the wearying efforts of a likable cast headed by Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker, the passage of 54 years is more than enough to reveal the triptych of one-act plays as uninhabitable in 2022.

That may be why the creative team, led by the director John Benjamin Hickey, has taken pains to set the revival, which opened on Monday at the Hudson Theater, so squarely in its period. The grand but dowdy décor of John Lee Beatty’s champagne-colored rooms, along with Jane Greenwood’s transitional costumes (sometimes mod Pucci, sometimes seamed stockings) and Marc Shaiman’s groovy interstitial pop, put a velvet rope around the action to mark it off as a museum piece.

But it would need something more like a cordon sanitaire to protect the audience from the trickle of smarm that leaks from the play. Structurally it barely stands, the three stories joined only by the setting they share — Suite 719 — and the two stars playing the leads in each. Beyond that, if you were looking for a theme, you would have to conclude that Simon, still early in his record-breaking career, was mostly interested in demonstrating that men may bluster, but women — whether wives, mothers or sirens — are dopes.

The wife arrives first. In “Visitor From Mamaroneck,” Parker plays Karen Nash, a woman who does not know her age because she has not mastered basic arithmetic. (She’s 47.) On what she asserts is her 24th wedding anniversary but is really a day shy of her 23rd, she has arranged for a romantic evening with her husband in the suite she thinks they shared on their wedding night. But Sam Nash (Broderick) is in no mood for romance; as men in such stories always do, he has contracts to work on, with the audience meant to understand that by this he means having an affair with his secretary. (Molly Ranson gives the brief role more dignity than Simon did.)

If it’s hard to find the funny in this setup, it’s harder to buy the sad in its payoff; the evident affection between Parker and Broderick, who are married in real life, extinguishes the spark of fury needed to ignite both laughs and pathos. (The original stars were the far more tempestuous George C. Scott and Maureen Stapleton.) Or perhaps Broderick alone is the culprit; he’s about as fiery as a frozen dinner. Parker fares better, occasionally spinning a line to show us that Karen is not as dumb as Sam and Simon think — but she’s pedaling uphill in a story that posits knowledge as a threat to womanly happiness.

Broderick and Parker as old flames in the second one-act, “Visitor From Hollywood.”Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

At least it posits something. The second act, “Visitor From Hollywood,” evidently meant as a post-intermission palate cleanser, has barely any content at all, and what it does have is icky. This time the ditz is Muriel Tate, a New Jersey woman who comes to the Plaza to see, for the first time in nearly 17 years, her high school boyfriend, Jesse Kiplinger. Jesse is now a famous movie producer whose every film, we are told, makes money. And though Muriel from Tenafly, like Karen from Mamaroneck, is an innumerate homemaker — her three children, she says, are “a boy and a girl” — she has the saving grace in Simonland of being “extremely attractive” and thus available for mashing.

In the manner of a Benny Hill sketch or an off-brand French sex romp, “Visitor From Hollywood” is single-minded, its action consisting solely of Jesse’s escalating stabs at seduction. But when neither his extreme unctuousness nor a pitcher of vodka stingers quite do the trick, he resorts to the ultimate aphrodisiac: name-dropping. It’s finally the likes of Charlton Heston and Yvette Mimieux who get Muriel into bed.

That she eagerly falls for this transparent ploy is not the worst part of the story, which is meant as a satire of celebrity culture; Parker makes Muriel’s star-struck, suburban shallowness, if not exactly funny, then at least endearingly odd. And Broderick, in a hilarious wig and eye-bruising plaid pants, begins to thaw a little, intermittently attempting a New Jersey accent and emitting some lustful grunts.

But the possibility of responding to this ruttishness with a lenient giggle is forestalled by the ghosts of #MeToo stalking the play; when Jesse, painting himself as the victim of his unfaithful ex-wives, describes them as “three of the worst bitches you’d ever want to meet,” you may find yourself looking, on Muriel’s behalf or your own, for the exit.

Parker and Broderick as the increasingly frustrated parents of a jittery bride in the third one-act play, “Visitor From Forest Hills.”Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Alas, as the third act demonstrates after a pause, the doors in this kind of comedy tend to be locked. In “Visitor From Forest Hills,” Roy and Norma Hubley are at their wits’ end trying to get their daughter, Mimsey, who’s supposed to get married downstairs any minute, to leave the bathroom she’s bolted herself into. As a quasi-violent farce ensues, in which Roy (Broderick) tries smoking her out, screaming through the keyhole and turning himself into a battering ram, Norma (Parker) stands by simpering, contradicting and driving Roy to distraction.

The joke, not a bad one in itself, is that in their response to Mimsey’s jitters about the wedding, the bickering Hubleys exemplify exactly what’s worrying her. Will she and Borden, her fiancé, wind up fighting just like her parents? But the problem Simon actually dramatizes isn’t, as he seems to think, marriage: It’s men. The act’s punchline, in which we get a sour taste of the peremptory Borden, only underlines that inadvertent point.

You could, I suppose, investigate “Plaza Suite” as a catalog of male failings in midcentury America; certainly “The Odd Couple,” a Simon comedy from 1965, can support such a reading, even if its two female characters are birdbrains. In any case, that’s not what the current production is offering. Rather, it seems to hope we will look forgivingly enough on our benighted past to excuse it with a “that’s how things were” shrug and laugh.

But that’s not how things were, it’s just how Simon saw them, at least until he began to grant women some intelligence and agency a decade later, in “Chapter Two.” Looked at now, his “Plaza Suite” jokes, however well formed, keep dying on the vine. The past is not yet past enough to find such an unfair battle of the sexes funny.

Plaza Suite
Through June 26 at the Hudson Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.

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