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French Roast

The six French characters of The Dinner Party are neither French nor characters; The Unexpected Man is more artful than Art.

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Whoever ends up seeing Neil Simon's The Dinner Party by mistaking it for Donald Margulies's Dinner With Friends is committing a costly error, and not so much because of the difference in ticket price. Rather because Margulies's play is about real people, and the funny, absurd, elating, and crushing things they do and say; Simon's is a contrived confection, with preposterous behavior from synthetic figures. Yes, it has some amusing dialogue, mostly one-liners, but the humor is that of a professional popgun for hire, an impersonal jokester, rather than an observer of humanity.

It is not that Simon cannot write for character; it is that the characters have no real life beyond the mechanics of the plot. Can you believe that a dinner party in the private dining room of a fancy Paris restaurant, supposedly given by a high-class divorce lawyer for six of his former clients, would actually take place even though he is revealed to be in Sardinia and the idea was really someone else's who would not even have known how to convene these six people? Can you believe that the lawyer represented all three husbands, and also managed to lure their three ex-wives to his party? Can you even believe in a lawyer -- a French one, at that -- generous enough to give dinner parties for his clients?

But are these people really French, coming from Simon, who, in his writing, never got closer to France than the eastern boroughs of New York? Do you think that a Parisian of even average intelligence would use a silly phrase like "communicatively challenged people"? Or that a Frenchman would have so provincial-American a culinary prejudice as to eat organs only "as long as the meat doesn't have any body functions"? For that matter, which organs do not have any "body functions"? Again, could even the dimmest Parisian mistake the exclamation "Tell me about it!" (assuming that the expression existed in French) for an invitation to spill out his guts?

But it is not that the six characters in search of authenticity are not French enough; it is that they are not real enough for anywhere. A rancorous fellow asks his ex-wife, who got half of everything he owned, about their dog: "Does she ever bark for me, or is that not the half I got?" This is funny, but can a genuine joke hinge on a totally artificial premise? Or, while we're in the canine realm, take this. Ex-husband: Will you ever stop hounding me? Ex-wife: We've done doggy things before; you've never complained. Aside from the joke not being feasible in French, would any tasteful woman make it in front of strangers?

That is the ultimate problem with Simon: a certain crudeness that does not travel to higher social ground. Not for him elegant comedy about refined people. So, for instance, no respectable woman would, on any level higher than lower-middle-class farce, behave in such abjectly screwy fashion as his Yvonne Fouchet, however amusingly played by Veanne Cox. And none, in however claustrophobic need of fresh air in a locked room, would literally climb up a wall toward an air vent, or cast herself down prone to inhale whatever air might penetrate between door and floor. Thus is the stylish actress Jan Maxwell turned into a Bette Midler-ish clown.

Would a seemingly cultivated Frenchman, as played by Len Cariou -- and a men's-fashion magnate to boot -- insult two harmless strangers with crass one-upmanship again and again? Or wear such a garishly tasteless tie? Though this should properly be blamed on the costume designer, Jane Greenwood, who also came up with the tawdry gown worn by the man's ex-wife, as otherwise smartly acted by Penny Fuller. The two other men, Henry Winkler and John Ritter, are good comedians but made to play, for the sake of forced jokes, dumber or smarter than they're meant to be.

John Rando has directed ably but perhaps a mite too broadly. John Lee Beatty's fake Fragonard mural works very nicely, and Brian MacDevitt sheds his usual acute light on the proceedings. But Simon's writing sheds light only on how TV comedy is joisted together.

Most meaningless plays are written by unintelligent people. Yasmina Reza's The Unexpected Man is different: It is a meaningless play written by an intelligent person, even a gifted one, as Miss Reza proved with Art. But there she had a subject. In the current piece, she has absolutely nothing to say but says it civilizedly and with a certain adroitness.

Parsky, a successful middle-aged novelist, and Marthe, a sophisticated woman of a similar age, are the sole occupants of a compartment on the Paris- Frankfurt train. They act out their interior monologues. He is bitter about the world, disgusted with his daughter and her fiancé, and dissatisfied with the reception of his work, and he intends The Unexpected Man, his latest, to be his last. She is trying to recover from the death of her longtime lover, married but devoted to her. She has recognized Parsky, is midway into that very novel, but, embarrassed to read it in front of him, hides it in her bag. Each wonders whether to speak to the other.

I question, first, why two separate Parisians should be traveling, at a time statedly other than that of the Frankfurt Book Fair, to that stodgy city. They could not both be intent on exploring the Goethe House. Next, why would two such mature and worldly people hesitate so long before talking -- other than to allow Reza to unpack her lengthy exposition, which takes up most of the play's 80 minutes? That, by the way, was also the likewise intermissionless duration of Art. May not this format entail special perils: too long for a one-acter, too short for a full-length play?

The trifle is well acted by Alan Bates, and superlatively by Eileen Atkins. He makes a mundane part tolerable; she gloriously transcends it. The production values are good, and Matthew Warchus has directed soundly. But the play, categorically, is not the thing.

David Auburn's delectable Proof has transferred, blessedly intact, to Broadway. As I wrote more extensively before (June 5, 2000), it is a riveting piece, splendidly directed by Daniel Sullivan and flawlessly acted by Larry Bryggman, Ben Shenkman, and Johanna Day, with Mary-Louise Parker more than that: sublime. Two such performances as hers and Miss Atkins's in one week: Could this be paradise on earth?


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