The first three characters who show up for the dinner party in Neil Simon's latest Broadway production don't know each other. So they assume they're spending the night with strangers. By the time the other three guests join them, they know better. So do we. We've partied with these characters for years, on stages and movie screens. George and Martha from "Virginia Woolf" are here. So are Amanda and Elyot from "Private Lives." The echo of Bing and Frank from "High Society" is so loud that one character sighs, "What a swell party this is."
That is to say, Simon employs a time-tested stage recipe here, using a party to bring characters together so he can peel them like onions and expose all their delicious neuroses. Unfortunately, the party itself suffers from a full-blown identity crisis. Its inner comedy struggles with its inner melodrama and in the end, neither wins. "The Dinner Party" begins with a blizzard of one-liners, and for some time it seems happy to tool along as a light comedy of verbal thrust and parry. Featuring two TV sitcom Hall of Famers in the opening exchanges doesn't lessen that effect, though Henry Winkler and John Ritter acquit themselves sturdily enough as the goofy Albert and the quietly simmering Claude. The first hint of serious matters arrives with the third and fourth guests, Andre (Len Cariou, superb as always) and Mariette (Jan Maxwell). But Simon hasn't run out of one-liners, yet. Mariette, after Andre reveals that he took a weekend trip with her to Morocco: "I can't believe you went public with that." Andre: "It wasn't a stock offering."
Fifth guest Yvonne (Veanne Cox) throws a few more quirks into the stew and sets the stage for Gabrielle (Penny Fuller) - whose sunny disposition camouflages only momentarily the fact she has brought with her a skyful of dark clouds. Suddenly, our little comedy has become psychodrama. Until now, pop-psychology platitudes about relationships have been fodder for jokes. Now they have become a platform for long and sometimes startlingly graphic monologues of confusion, confession and contrition. What is unconditional love? Can envy poison love? Is it possible to love too much? Can a seeming act of love be an expression of anger? Valid questions. But they weigh more than the slight frame of "The Dinner Party" is built to handle, and they so narrow the possibilities for the characters that they constrict the whole drama. Simon forsakes the funny bone while never fully engaging the heartstrings. All the performances are solid, though Ritter and Winkler occasionally overplay. John Lee Beatty's set is masterfully simple; Jane Greenwood's costumes and Brian MacDevitt's lighting nicely suited. As with any Simon play, the audience can bank on some good laughs, and director John Rando's sharp pacing makes the 95-minute show zip right by. In fact, you'll be out in time for a bite to eat, which is good, because after this "Dinner Party" you'll still feel a little bit hungry.
Artists re-invent themselves to stay alive. Some, like Picasso, do it in explosive bursts. Others, like Neil Simon, take a more leisurely approach.
His new comedy, "The Dinner Party," which opened at the Music Box last night, boasts authentic TV stars in Henry (the Fonz) Winkler and John Ritter, both making their Broadway debuts.
It is also different from any of Simon's other plays. But not so different.
Here three men, unknown to each other, and three women are invited to a private dining room in an ultra-chic Parisian restaurant.
It transpires that each of the three men were once married to one of the three women. Three couplings so odd they busted.
They seem to have been invited by the very same divorce lawyer who arranged their own divorces. But there are only six places laid for dinner.
Throughout the years Simon has tried to break the mold imposed on him. With "The Dinner Party" he pushes his envelope just a little bit further - his sometimes abrasive, in one case unpleasant, characters often have a grimmer reality here than Simon once permitted.
As the play progresses - about 95 minutes without intermission - it gets more into the swing of it.
Simon's sense of adventure is too often shortchanged by his need for caution. He needlessly underlines his jokes - one guest in a lounge suit enters, sees the other two men in tuxedos and presumes they are waiters.
The body language tells all and the audience laughs. Then the lounge suit guy spells out the joke. That's overkill.
The most interestingly written of the three mismatched couples, played entrancingly by Penny Fuller and commandingly by Len Cariou, together with a deliciously cool Jan Maxwell, offer the best performances.
Ritter also has some good moments while Winkler, an able clown, still seems to have strayed in from an inferior version of the play.
The director, John Rando making his Broadway debut, does a very smooth job while the haute-couture costumes by Jane Greenwood give out a positive aroma of Parisian chic.
This is a darker Neil Simon from the Neil Simon Broadway once knew and once loved - and the play's refusal to come up to every expectation of knowing guffaws could prevent it from becoming a Neil Simon copper-bottomed hit.
However take "The Dinner Party" on its own frequently hilarious but also dangerously serious terms and it will be an invitation you were glad you accepted.
The panic sets in when the doors are locked. Five of the six characters in ''The Dinner Party,'' the exceedingly odd new melocomedy that opened last night at the Music Box Theater, have been wondering who has brought them together in a private room in an expensive Parisian restaurant.
Now, with no way out, they are forced to conclude that they are at the mercy of someone very strange and possibly sinister. And if they were in a play by Pirandello instead of the famously affable Neil Simon, these characters might look out into the darkness of the theater, searching angrily for their author, to yell, ''J'accuse!''
A carefully selected group of antagonistic guests; an unknown manipulative figure who plans to play them like chess pieces; a staggered series of increasingly fraught revelations: Mr. Simon has been this way before with his screenplay for ''Murder by Death'' (1976), the celebrity-studded sendup of the classic country house murder mystery. And at least some of the cast members assembled here, like the former sitcom stars John Ritter and Henry Winkler, would seem like naturals for a sequel to that movie.
But make no mistake: with ''The Dinner Party,'' directed with much vigor and little subtlety by John Rando, Mr. Simon is playing the same game with a straight, even sorrowful face. Not that this precludes fusillades of those familiar Simon one-liners, which keep erupting even after you have expected them to stop, like the last kernels in a pan of popcorn. Nor is there any lack of shtick as old as the geriatric vaudevillians in Mr. Simon's ''Sunshine Boys.''
Yet the prevailing spirit is rueful, a bewildered sense of the ways husbands and wives seem doomed to hurt each other. Tragedy and comedy are walking hand in hand here. The result, unfortunately, has the ungainliness of an entrant in a three-legged race.
The most successful writer of Broadway comedies of the last half-century and a Pulitzer Prize winner for the wistful ''Lost in Yonkers,'' Mr. Simon is still largely known as the master of the quick comeback, someone whose style has now been thoroughly appropriated by television comedy. He obviously feels claustrophobic confined to this pigeonhole. Who can blame him? It's heartening to see that at 73 he is asserting his right to explore new territory while holding on to beloved staples of the classic Simon style.
Nonetheless, with ''The Dinner Party'' this kind of experimentation has produced a truly bizarre mutant. It's a French farce with a Brooklyn accent! It's a Strindbergian sexual slugfest with a laugh track! It's a worldly slice of whimsy a la Jean Anouilh with an all-American smile! A theatergoer unfamiliar with Mr. Simon's earlier work could be forgiven for assuming that Doc, the playwright's professional nickname, is short for Dr. Moreau, H. G. Wells's hybrid-making mad scientist.
Frankly, when I heard that Mr. Simon had written an intermissionless play of dissonant relationships set in Paris, I cynically assumed that he was emulating the commercial success of ''Art,'' Yasmina Reza's intermissionless play of dissonant relationships set in Paris. But ''The Dinner Party'' is light years away from the tidy symmetry and minimalism of ''Art.'' To begin with, instead of being set in a starkly modernist apartment, ''The Dinner Party'' unfolds before walls decorated with the marzipan lovers of Fragonardesque murals.
John Lee Beatty's set doesn't stint on the opulence found in Old World tourist-trap restaurants in Paris: there are the glittering chandeliers, the silver salvers, the lush pastels. The environment does not match the voices of those who inhabit it. Every time Mr. Winkler, in a rather endearing portrait of a nebbishy used-car salesman, introduces himself as Albert Donay -- the Albert pronounced a la francais -- it is an aural joke, since the accent is Brighton Beach.
So, for that matter, is much of the early dialogue, in which three men who have never met before get to know one another through the traditional Simon volleys of insults. In addition to Mr. Winkler, the participants are Mr. Ritter, as the bookshop owner Claude Pichon, and Len Cariou as Andre Bouville, a men's clothing tycoon.
Mr. Rando has seen that the dialogue is delivered with deft timing, but there is little real sense of the personalities of these men. They are defined almost entirely by their irritability, their professions and their one-liners. Albert, who is also an abstract painter (of used cars), is the obligatory dim member of this vaudevillian interaction. Example: ''Do you like Fragonard?'' Claude asks. ''Not before dinner,'' Albert answers.
Things perk up a bit with the arrival of the first woman, Mariette Levieux. She is a successful popular novelist played -- lucky for us -- by Jan Maxwell, who gives off a real French brittleness as well as a troubled emotional current that slices through the prevailing artificiality.
The very creditable cast is rounded out by Veanne Cox as Yvonne Fouchet, the sort of hyper-intense neurotic who has become this actress's specialty, and Penny Fuller as Gabrielle, an elegant creature of a certain age and an iron velvet-gloved will. Since Mr. Simon's play is structured as an unveiling of mysteries, I won't say how these characters are connected, though connected they turn out to be, to the point of strangulation.
With the arrival of the silky Ms. Fuller, the tone of the evening struggles plaintively toward a philosophical wryness about things sexual, toward the sensibility so exquisitely captured in the Ingmar Bergman movie ''Smiles of a Summer Night.'' It then takes a sharp turn into Edward Albee territory, with party games designed to pour salt on old wounds. So people wind up saying things like, ''Your womb became a receptacle of all my self-loathing.''
It should be noted that such ugly declarations rest cheek by jowl with the kind of quips that have flooded the stage since the evening began, some funny, some stale. Straight line: ''Did you know that primates are more successful at choosing mates than we are?'' Punch line: ''That's because there're not as many lawyers in the jungle.''
In top-form Simon comedies like ''The Sunshine Boys'' and the autobiographical ''Brighton Beach'' trilogy, the wisecracks feel like a natural part of the defensive armor of the people portrayed. In ''The Dinner Party,'' they often feel like the offerings of a veteran gag writer, hot off the word processor. As Andre says to Gabrielle, ''I feel like I'm talking to a machine that spits out poisoned tennis balls.''
''The Dinner Party'' is filled with such lines, suggesting that Mr. Simon wants to tell us that he knows what he is doing and to bear with him, please. Indeed, this is surely his most artistically self-conscious play. When Mariette says that she is leaving before the party turns into farce, Andre answers: ''It's already farce. I think we're aiming for a much higher form of absurdity.''
Mr. Simon has the same aim. ''The Dinner Party'' obviously hopes to invert a traditional comic form to reveal the truly absurd messes that so many people make of their marriages. Mr. Simon, who has been married five times, has reason to consider this subject. But no matter how profound his intentions, the play keeps shifting into automatic pilot, reflexively delivering barbs that glide over the surface instead of piercing it.
''The Dinner Party'' concludes on a tender, truly stirring note of pathos, bewilderment and affection for the foolish mortals who create such havoc for themselves. This sentimental moment is so palpably sincere, you wish you had been able to believe for a single instant in the events leading up to it.
If you're planning to write a sophisticated romantic comedy tinged with rue, why not go to Paris for the occasion? The city of light is, we all assume, the world capital of sophisticated romances tinged with rue. Accordingly, Neil Simon, who has long specialized in writing about urban Americans, is writing about urbane Parisians in his new comedy, "The Dinner Party," the prolific playwright's first Broadway foray in three seasons.
Some jet lag is to be expected, and "The Dinner Party" reveals more than a few indications of disorientation. Simon is stretching his talent in new directions here, and can be applauded for the effort, even if the results aren't really successful. With a $2 million-plus advance, a whopping figure for a straight play, the show may be able to coast on audiences' enduring affection for Simon, even if they are somewhat surprised by the dark, occasionally bitter tone of his new comedy.
The playwright is not employing the one-liner strafed formula that won him early success and was later co-opted by the TV sitcom format. He's got a situation, certainly -- three divorced couples trapped together in the private dining room of a chichi Paris restaurant -- but Simon has more than mindless laughter in mind here.
The play begins lazily with an extended scene between the first two arrivals at a gilt palace representing the height of gaudy Parisian richesse (John Lee Beatty gets full marks for the campy faux-Fragonard mural that provides a backdrop for the play). The first is Claude Pichon (John Ritter), an antique book dealer who soon finds himself at conversational cross purposes with the second, Albert Donay (Henry Winkler). Albert (that's Al-bear) is the puppyish dim bulb of the bunch. When Claude mentions that he owns a letter from Albert Einstein to one of his relatives, Albert pipes up in his dopey monotone, "Maybe that's where he got the idea ..."
They've been invited to the dinner by their divorce lawyer, and after much belabored comic banter, they're joined by a third fellow, the supercilious Andre Bouville (Len Cariou), also a client of said lawyer. None of these fellows knows any of the others, but the first female to arrive turns out to be Claude's ex-wife Mariette Levieux (the names get Frencher and Frencher, even as the dialogue wouldn't be out of place at, uh, Gotham's Alain Ducasse -- to pull a name out of a hat). Arrivals five and six are Yvonne Fouchet (Veanne Cox), the mousy ex-wife of Albert, and, yes, Andre's ex Gabrielle Buonocelli (Penny Fuller), who announces herself as the mastermind of the affair.
There's a heap of contrivance in the plot's orchestration. Exits and entrances are baldly arranged to allow each couple a moment of reckoning over the past; pretty much every character announces at some point that he or she is leaving at once, then concocts a reason not to; eventually the doors are locked and the phone is cut off, after which the imperious Gabrielle poses a game of questions designed, apparently, to reunite at least one of the couples. Most unclear is why she has any interest in, or even particular knowledge of, the other two.
Of course most plays rely on contrivance, and if Simon's "Dinner Party" offered up a sufficiently tasty repast, these would be immaterial. But the playwright's strength has never been psychological depth, and in attempting to explore the fissures that broke up these three marriages, he doesn't really come up with much that's fresh, to say nothing of French. The doting Albert smothered Yvonne with his obsessive attentions. Claude was jealous of Mariette; under his tutelage she'd become a talented novelist while his higher-brow literary ambitions went unfulfilled. Rather more unpleasant are the exchanges between Andre and Gabrielle, which refer repeatedly to things of a "sordid" and "vile" sexual nature.
"You weren't the wrong man; we were the wrong couple," says one ex-spouse to another. "God I hate marriage -- the loving isn't worth the misery," announces another. "For the first time I know what real love is," says a third, rebuffing a rapprochement. Such is the general level of insight here. (The level of Simon's syntax is also, at times, distressingly low: "I stopped making love with you but rather at you," says Andre to Gabrielle. Not quite sense, that, but at least we know what he means. At times the play sounds as if it was actually translated from the French, and not felicitously.)
There are pleasures, of course. Simon is still a peerless joke writer, and many individual lines are terrific. Albert, who followed Yvonne around constantly after their divorce, and yet never spoke to her, explains, "If I didn't seek you out, how would you know I was ignoring you!" When Simon does mete out the laugh lines, they're much appreciated amidst the less than captivating marital angst.
Adding to a general sense of dislocation is John Rando's direction, which seems to consist of allowing each actor to imprint his or her own comic style on the proceedings. Winkler plays the dopey puppy-dog charm to death, and adds several bits of physical comedy that had the audience, I must faithfully report, in stitches. Ritter can deliver a snarky wisecrack, but resorts to shouting when heightened emotion is required. Both actors, best known for long stints in sitcoms, take the stage with an aggressively ingratiating attitude toward the audience. Stage vet Cariou has no such problem, but his character is notably unpleasant.
The women's performances are more appealing, although they, too, are in distinctly different styles. Maxwell, looking wonderfully chic in a witty, Thierry Mugler-esque suit supplied by ace costume designer Jane Greenwood, approaches her role simply and honestly, and hers is the single character who really touches us. Fuller exudes a sparkling, smart charisma that brings some needed dignity to her character, who must endure the roughest handling at the hands of her ex. And Cox, who always inhabits her own loopy theatrical universe, happily takes us there whenever she is center stage (she even threatens to go into orbit at one delightful moment).
But Simon's theatrical "Dinner Party," like many a real one, never comes together satisfactorily, and for essentially the same reason -- our insufficient affection for and interest in our fellow guests. Authentically Parisian or not, these characters are simply not drawn with enough depth and originality to sustain our sympathy and affection through a somewhat strangely catered meal.